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Immigration, Urbanization, and Identity

The Progressive Era City

Investigating Photographs as Propaganda

Learning Targets

  • I can distinguish between posed and candid photographs.
  • I can identify details in photographs that suggest that they may be staged.
  • I can identify the intention behind using these photographs.
  • I can extend my understanding of the use of intent in photographs to modern-day advertising.

Background: Photos as Propaganda in the Progressive Era: Comparing Hine and Riis

Propaganda can be defined as information, ideas, or rumors that are deliberately spread to advance a specific cause. During the Progressive Era, certain photographers used their photos to deliberately sway their audience to agree with their political point of view. One such photographer was Lewis Hine.

Lewis Hine is most widely known for his photographs that depicted life in the factories and mills in the northeast and southern United States. As a result of his work, he was hired by the National Child Labor Committee to photograph the working conditions of children to raise public awareness. In turn, his photographs helped to usher in a new era of reform and improve the living and working conditions of many.

In 1908, Hine spent several months taking photographs for the Pittsburgh Survey, a sociological investigation of the living and working conditions of coal miners in western Pennsylvania. These photos were intended to show the wealthy the conditions under which these miners lived and worked. Unlike the images of Jacob Riis, however, which often depicted fear and weariness in his subjects, Hine’s photos portrayed the workers as exploited, but robust and dignified—either proud first-generation Americans or deserving candidates for U.S. citizenship.

Begin the Activity

Distribute the images or project them. Ask students to compare and contrast the images of Riis and Hine. How are they similar? How do they differ?

Questions to Consider

  • Why, and for whom, were the photos taken?
  • What can companion images tell us?
  • Are there elements of propaganda in the captions of the photos?


Have students look at photographs 3009 (Riis) and 3033 (Hine). What can they learn from this comparison? How are the photos similar? How do they differ? What are the captions trying to convey?

next: Child Labor Conditions: Then and Now

Grade Level

Middle & High School


English Language Arts
Social Studies
U.S. History


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