Mary Harris Jones, aka “Mother,” lost her husband and children to yellow fever but she became the loving “mother” of all children forced to work in the early 1900s. The fearless organizer had a booming voice and attracted anyone who was willing to organize with her including African Americans, wives of miners, and children who marched carrying signs saying “We Want to Go to School and Not to the Mines.”
During the industrial boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries there were so many needs for manual labor and wages were so low that children had to do whatever they could to help their families or themselves survive. Lewis Hine was an educator and reformer who supported much of what Mother Jones was working to accomplish in the labor movement. He had a background in printing and artwork and was a natural at photography. He was recruited to help with the movement to eradicate child labor by the The National Child Labor Committee and travel around the country to photograph children working in factories, mills, mines, and canneries. His photos were then given to leaders to help pass laws against using child labor. The movement proved successful with Mother Jones rallying in the streets while officials were forced to look at the faces of these children.
Though the invention of photography was in the early 1800s, it made it into the mainstream with the introduction of flexible plastic films during the 1890s. Photography was suddenly accessible and affordable and social reform photography became the way activists documented atrocities. Hine wasn’t the only one traveling across the country depicting these heartbreaking tales. Jacob Riis was a Danish journalist that moved to the United States and began photographing slums hoping to reform living conditions and public safety. Photographers who worked of the Farm Security Administration were tasked with capturing images of the rural poor struggling during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Their photos helped illustrate the necessity for social programs that became part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Check out some of the photos by Lewis Hine that are available at the Library of Congress’ NCLC collection below with the with the original detailed captions. Think about how far we’ve come in the last 100 years when it comes to safety on the job, protecting children and embracing education. If we never had the advancement of photography our world might look more like this or what Apple factories look like. The legacy of social reform photography continues today, but the invention of the camera phone and social media makes it more difficult to break through the noise. I challenge you to think about ways you can tell stories through photography, particularly ones that help inspire change.
Feature image via Library of Congress’ NCLC collection.