Lewis Wickes Hine – Photographer For Reform

Lewis Wickes Hine

Lewis Wickes Hine

Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940) – A sociologist and photographer, he used his camera as a tool for social reform. His photographs were instrumental in changing the child labor laws.

Hine was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin on September 26, 1874. Unfortunately, his father died when he still young, and he began to work and save money so that he could go to college. He studied sociology at the University of Chicago, Columbia University and New York University from 1900 to1907. It was during this time that he purchased his first camera in 1903.

After graduating, he went to work as a teacher in New York City at the Ethical Culture School, where he used his photographs in teaching, and encouraged his students to do the same.

While working in New York, Hine began to use his camera to capture poverty, as well as many of the immigrants at Ellis Island. Between 1904 and 1909, Hine took over 200 photographs, and soon came to the conclusion that he really wanted to work as a photojournalist.

In 1906, he became the staff photographer of the Russell Sage Foundation, where he photographed life in the steel-making districts and people of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for a sociological study called the Pittsburgh Survey. In 1908, he became the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee and over the next decade, documented child labor in American industry to aid the lobbying efforts to end the practice. That same year, he published Charities and the Commons, a collection of photographs of tenements and sweatshops, hoping to bring about social reform.

"At home", Lewis Wickes Hine, 1913.

“At home”, Lewis Wickes Hine, 1913.

In one 12 month period Hine traveled over 12,000 miles taking pictures of children working in factories and at other occupations. Unlike other photographers, Hine made no attempt to exaggerate the poverty of these young people and some of his critics claimed that his photographs were not “shocking enough.” To this, Hine argued that people were more likely to join the campaign against child labor if the photographs accurately captured the reality of the situation. Many business often refused Hine permission to enter their properties and accused him of muckraking. To abate this and gain access, he sometimes hid his camera and posed as a fire inspector.

During and after World War I, he photographed American Red Cross relief work in Europe and in the and early 1930’s, made a series of “work portraits,” which emphasized the risks many workers endured.

During the Great Depression, he photographed drought relief for the Red Cross and mountain life for the Tennessee Valley Authority. He also served as chief photographer for the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) National Research Project, which studied changes in industry and their effect on employment and was a member of the faculty of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School.

 12 year-old girl herding cattle in Oklahoma, Lewis Wicks Hine, 1917.

12 year-old girl herding cattle in Oklahoma, Lewis Wicks Hine, 1917.

Over time; however, many of the government programs were discontinued and Hine’s corporate patronage dropped off as well. For whatever reasons, few people were interested in his work. He eventually lost his house and applied for welfare. On November 3, 1940, at the age off 66, he died at Dobbs Ferry Hospital in Dobbs Ferry, New York, after an operation.

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated August, 2015.

Also See: 

Historic Photographers of America’s History

The Great Depression

Who’s Who in American History

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