Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs Across the Curriculum
Focus In on This Photo: Child Labor
Three boys stand by a building and appear to be holding newspapers.
The boys all wear similarly formal clothing. Their caps, heavy pants, and boots indicate the weather is cool even, though it is April.
The caption says they are each carrying more than 50 newspapers, but they don’t carry them in a bag.
They are small in stature; the newspapers they carry are nearly as large as they are.
Build on your Observations
Details in the image provide clues to the fact that the image was made at night. The lighting of the scene is harsher on the right. Objects on the left appear to reflect light. The photographer has made this image with the aid of artificial lighting; what is known today as flash photography. This is probably why the boys’ expressions (poignant in their awkwardness) are less than composed: they were probably surprised by the exposure.
The visible architecture suggests the setting for this image is urban. Because they wear heavier clothing and it is April, it is probably a city in the upper Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, or New England region.
The occupation of these boys tells us this is an urban setting. The title and darkened scene provides an indication of the working conditions of these young boys, who worked long hours selling newspapers on the streets of major cities.
From the statement of the boy in the caption, these boys are working, even through the night. Selling newspapers was competitive work. The night shift allowed the boys to entice potential customers with freshly printed newspapers and to access potential customers out enjoying the city nightlife. The boys were known as “Newsies.”
Hine’s extended caption makes sure viewers understand what they are looking at, and its implications. He tells us their ages, and the mention of the time tells us these boys do not attend school. The quotation from “the oldest” provides information about his family’s economic situation.
Formulate Further Questions
What conditions led children to have to work in such jobs? In what other occupations did children work? How common was this practice?
What was the function of this photograph?
What was the context in which Hine produced it?
How do words like “stuck” make us look at the photograph in a particular or different way?
After midnight, April 17, 1912, G St., near 14th, these three boys 10 yrs, 11 yrs. and 12 yrs. old, were stuck with over 50 papers on their hands, and vowed they would stay until they sold out if it took all night. The oldest said, “my mother makes me sell.” Lawrence Lee (10 yrs.) 912 26th St., N.W., Michael, Niland (11yrs.) 930 26th St., N.W., Martin Garvin (12 yrs.) 928 26th St., N.W. Location: [Washington (D.C.), District of Columbia].
Date: April 17, 1912
Location: Washington, D.C.
Photographer: Lewis Hine
Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, LC-DIG-nclc-03788
Photos downloaded from the Essential Lens site are cleared for educational use only.
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Program 1 A Closer Look (video)
This introduction to the course models the process of analyzing photographs with teachers and students. Photography historian Makeda Best discusses the Focus In method with teachers, and educator Julie Keefe employs the method with students at a photography exhibit on "light and dark." Photography curator at the Portland Art Museum, Julia Dolan discusses how she carefully selects a set of photographs to tell a larger story.
Program 2 Witness (video)
Photographs bear witness to world events and help us to learn more about people, places, and situations -- historical and present day. Middle school teacher Donald Rose guides students in analyzing photos from school integration movements of the 1960s. Documentary film producer Ken Burns weaves photographs into historical narratives to bring the past to life. Photojournalist Louie Palu's photos take us deep into mines and war zones, and engage us with the individuals who take on those tasks.
Program 3 Lives (video)
Lives explores the story of human resilience and perseverance. Middle school teacher Donald Rose uses the Migrant Mother photos by Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange to help students understand what elements a photographer chooses to focus on to create the greatest impact. Historian Linda Gordon, biographer of FSA photographer Dorothea Lange reveals Lange's role in engaging Americans in the plight of those who were most devastated. New Orleans documentary photographers Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick talk about the transformation of their photographs after Hurricane Katrina and working with young photographers to preserve the city's cultural heritage.
video 4 Evidence (video)
An image can show us otherwise invisible processes, previously undiscovered life forms, and dramatic change over time. High school teacher Rima Givot engages her students with highly magnified photos of mouse muscle to study genetically modified organisms. Scientist and photomicrographer Dennis Kunkel demonstrates the fascinating process of creating photographs of the microscopic world. Environmental photographer Gary Braasch reports on his worldwide travels to document the state of the planet through repeat photography.
Program 5 Story (video)
Every photograph tells a story: of struggle, of beauty, of community and culture. Social studies teacher Kim Kanof uses photos from the Protests and Politics collection to teach about protests around in the world in 1968. National Geographic photo editor Pamela Chen details the collaborative process of creating photo-based feature stories with design director David Whitmore. Iowa photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier discusses his work documenting the residents and images of marginalized communities across the United States.