Photography changes the world. Part 2. The children of Lewis Hines

A number of years ago I worked freelance for church organizations—not the kind that seem to always catch the headlines today—but the liberal descendants of the mainstream churches of the early 20th century who advocated a “social gospel.” Their mission, as they read the gospels, was to bring justice to the poor and dispossessed of the world. On the thirteenth floor of John D. Rockefeller’s Interchurch Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, known locally as “the God box,” where the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries gathered pictures, stories and evidence for the Christian crusade, a small room had been given over to shelves and shelves of old picture albums. They’d been collected in labeled barrels and kept at a nearby warehouse until then.

The albums were a wonder to me. The bulk of the best pictures were from the first few decades of the 1900s. They were brought together to advance what seemed to Protestant Christianity then like the coming of a new age of “justice rolling down like waters,” of “the new Jerusalem.” Not surprisingly, the theme of much of the material was an evangelistic one, but the call for social justice was also central. What also pleased me was that many of the pictures seemed to have been collected for the sheer joy of viewing.

Among those pictures were dozens of photos by Lewis Hine, a passionate social reformer, who was educated as a sociologist but discovered that he could do more good with a camera than in a classroom. His pictures changed the child labor laws in the United States.

“Glassworks. Midnight. Location: Indiana.” From a series of photographs of child labor at glass and bottle factories in the United States by Lewis W. Hine, for the National Child Labor Committee, New York. 1908.

“I’m sure I’m right in my choice of work,” he wrote in 1910. “My child-labor photos have already set the authorities to work to see ‘if such things can be possible.’ They try to get around them by crying ‘Fake’ but therein lies the value of the data and a witness. My ‘sociological horizon’ broadens hourly.”

Or again: “The great social peril is darkness and ignorance. Light is required. Light! Light in floods!”

Addie Card, 12 years, spinner. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection.

Hine’s pictures were perhaps the most effective of any in those old picture albums: they convinced Protestant churchmen and women to work for change. But many of the pictures in the books were there for the same reason. They were used in magazines and newspapers, in lantern shows and posters. Hines’ photographs, more than the others, have the distinction of having been taken by an artist. They were not just witnesses to truth. They were, and are, works of art. Their subjects served Hines’ stated purpose, but the photos themselves lived on afterwards, isolated, cut off from their original context of family, and often even of workplace. We admire them because they are beautiful, not because they brought about legislative change.

Which brings us to Susan Sontag’s rather more cynical approach to the photography of do-gooding crusaders in her influential essay, On Photography (1977). “Photography conceived as social documentation was an instrument of that essentially middle-class attitude, both zealous and merely tolerant, both curious and indifferent, called humanism—which found slums the most enthralling of decors.”

I’m prepared to be cynical like the Sontag of the ’70s, until I find an extraordinary websight, Its proprietor, Joe Manning, has been tracking down Lewis Hine’s children, one at a time, searching out their descendants, discovering their stories. “The stories, however long or brief, are what they are, and they help us to get to know a few people whose only public persona, for as long as a hundred years, has been a simple snapshot.”

I’m inclined to add: most people don’t even get that—a very public snapshot of themselves. And to praise photography: “Light! Light in floods!”

The old photo albums were full of condescension towards the poor; they objectified people; they isolated them from both their own worlds and the viewer’s. Many of them were as colonialistic in intent as their photographers. And yet, they were also a remarkable celebration of life. And I loved them for it.

Photography changes the world: Part 1

 In my last post I wrote briefly about the photograph and the mass of people who, unlike the wealthy, never saw their family history in paintings and sculpture, whose parents, grandparents and great grandparents were lost to memory. Photography helped people remember the past; it gave them visual images of those had gone before them. It enriched their histories. 

Not only did their personal histories grow longer, richer and deeper, they also acquired wider vision of the whole world with the appearance of photographs in magazines, newspapers and books. 

But the poor not only looked at the world differently, they were looked at more intensely, and sometimes to good effect. 

 The first photographer to photograph poverty and its victims was Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant, who was a police reporter in late 19th century New York City. 

Jacob Riis


Riis explored the city’s slums and her people in articles for the New York Tribune, and then, wanting to more deeply impress his subject on his readers, invited photographers to accompany him, until he began to take photographs himself. It wasn’t easy in the 1870s. The settings for his stories were often dangerous: poverty has always bred violence. Cameras were large and unwieldy and most of Riis’s photos were taken in the dark corners of the city, often at night, and had to be taken with a flash. 

Bandit’s Roost by Jacob Riis, 1888, from How the Other Half Lives. This image is Bandit’s Roost at 59½ Mulberry Street, considered the most crime-ridden, dangerous part of New York City.


Riis and the photographers who worked with him were among the first to use flash. The pistol lamps they used were dangerous and looked threatening, and were soon replaced by another process, in which Riis lit magnesium powder on a frying pan. The picture taker had to remove the lens cap, ignite the flash powder, and replace the lens cap. The time taken sometimes made for a blurred image and the equivalent in black and white photography of red-eye. 

Jacob Riis became early 20th century America’s most famous reporter. His exposés helped end the worst tenement housing. They broke down police force corruption and brutality. His photographs and writing brought about the creation and enforcement of housing codes. Fire escapes, windows, toilets and running water were changed. His exposé of the probable transmission of cholera through the city’s water supply led to today’s clean drinking water. It was because of Riis that playgrounds were built on the grounds of public schools. In a book that has become a classic, How the Other Half Lives, he described his work among the city’s immigrants. 

Children of the streets.


An evangelical Christian, his writing and his photography were of a piece: they represented a Christian crusade for social justice. Photography as an art form was never something that interested him, and yet today, many of his pictures can look, to a modern audience, suspiciously like art. Separated by time from the cause that fired them, separated from words that accompanied them, they become art. 

But more on this subject in our next post when we look at the very beautiful photographs of Lewis Hine and later still, at those of the Depression photographers who worked for the government’s New Deal programs.