Do you think Martha Rosler is unfair on socially driven photographers like Lewis Hine? Is there a sense which work like this is exploitative or patronising? Does it matter if someone benefits in the long run? Does photography change situations?
Martha Rosler claimed that Lewis Hine’s documentary photograph was ‘not helping the social situation because it reinforced the gap between rich and poor’. She described Hine’s work and those like him, as ‘propagandising social work and righting wrongs’. Rosler felt that ‘In calling for their righting the photographers both expressed sympathy for the poor and appealed to the self-interest of the privileged. They were making a strong case for charity rather than self help’. (Ashley la Grange, 2005:113).
It would be difficult to form an opinion on Martha Rosler’s criticism of Lewis Hine’s apparently misguided intentions and his use of documentary photography, without looking at the history and the images themselves, so I decided to research both.
As a teacher in America in the early 1900’s, Hine would have undoubtedly been troubled by the lack of any laws protecting children from child labour, which presumably is what drove him to give up his teaching post and work for the National Child Labour Committee as their investigator and photographer in 1908.
Obviously not afraid of hard work himself, Hine covered 12,000 miles across America in just one year, taking pictures of children working in factories. Some of his images are shown below and I’ve included my thoughts on the impact each image has on me:-
The photograph above does not induce any feelings of shock or sympathy. The children appear reasonably well-nourished and clothed. Some are smiling, apparently happy with their lot. The conditions don’t appear to be too awful – their workplace is well lit, all the children working are seated and they appear to be working alongside adults, some of whom we could assume are family members. It almost feels that Hine’s concern is that these children are missing their education – they should be reading not stringing beans!
Hine himself also consciously avoided maximising the shock factor of his images. He argued in fact that people were more likely to join the campaign against child labour if they felt the photographs accurately captured the reality of the situation.
Hine could, very easily, have resorted to photographing the side effects of child labour on the health and well-being of his subjects. Many children were reported at the time of being underweight. Some suffered from stunted growth and curvature of the spine. They developed diseases related to their work environment, such as tuberculosis and bronchitis for those who worked in coal mines or cotton mills. They faced high accident rates due to physical and mental fatigue caused by hard work and long hours.
Hine resisted the temptation to be exploitative by photographing sick children and I think that his perseverance with the ‘truth’ in an image, focussing on the work the children carried out rather than what that work could lead to, adds to his credibility. He clearly understood that shocking his audience might detract from his ultimate aim of changing the law for the benefit of these and other children to come. It might even have slowed the entire law making process if the focus moved to the factory owners being criminalised or even going underground.
This second image reinforces the idea of Hine’s concern over the children’s future due to their missing education. It is in fact Hine’s detailed notes taken for each image which provide the tell-tale signs of his deep seated concern and reasons for his commitment to taking these photographs, rather than the images themselves.
Indeed, this next quotation from Hine, clarifies his intention to merely replicate his impression via his images without any falsification:-
‘Hine defined a good photograph as “a reproduction of impressions made upon the photographer which he desires to repeat to others.” Because he realized his photographs were subjective, he described his work as “photo-interpretation.”‘ (The US National Archives and Records Administration).
So what were the results of Hine’s work? Whilst it may not be possible to completely link his photographs to the subsequent changes in the law, there can be no doubt that his work with the Committee did contribute to the social consciences: In 1916, Congress passed the Keating-Owens Act that established child labour standards – a minimum age of 14 and documentary proof of age. By 1920 the number of child labourers was cut to half of what it had been in 1910. Rosler conveniently forgets this historical change in her commentary and it feels like an injustice to Hine himself to do so. These children and indeed their families were not in a position to ‘help themselves’ and it was not ‘charity’ that Hine was looking to achieve, or make the wealthier classes feel better about themselves.
A somewhat bigger injustice for Hine was that he eventually died in extreme poverty himself in 1940, having struggled to make his photographic career pay for himself personally.
Regarding Rosler’s essay again, I think that this type of socially driven documentary photography needs to be considered in the context of the time it was created. In the early 1900s (before television and the wealth of information – written and visual and easily accessible via the Internet), photographers must have felt they had an almost moral duty to provide evidence of the way different classes of society were living. Contrary to Rosler’s opinion that it was damaging to highlight these differences, I think it must have felt almost like their ‘mission’ – they were the first to have this visual type of technology, it was up to them to provide the evidence in the absence of other media.
Today, the argument might be legitimately levelled to a photographer who is using similar images, that they are exploitative. To single out an individual subject in a photograph for the purposes of highlighting a social issue, feels unnecessary.
One of the images which has always stayed with me, almost hauntingly so, is that of David Kirby, the AIDs victim, on his deathbed in 1990 surrounded by his family members. The image was taken by Theresa Frare, a journalism student. The image is of course shocking and feels overtly intrusive and completely exploitative; but because of probably all those reasons, this photograph must have remained in the minds of the millions of people who saw it, and subsequently also in colour, as part of the notorious Benetton advertising campaign. It struck me that this image and therefore this man, the subject of the image, probably did more for the cause of raising awareness about AIDS across the globe, than any other campaign with the same aim. So yes, exploitative and intrusive at the time, but a powerful legacy for his family to retrospectively understand the impact that it had.
So ultimately yes, I do believe that images can feel exploitative particularly at the time they are taken and especially if they are as shocking as the Kirby image was, but it is imminently necessary to look at the bigger picture. What images do you carry with you in your brain simply because they struck such a chord with you and contained such a strong message? Did the same impact happen to many other people and did it therefore did it help globally in some way? Did it effectively contribute to a greater good? Did the ‘victims’ in the image then also benefit from the knowledge that portraying them or someone close to them, maybe saved others’ lives? I would conclude that documentary photography sometimes needs to be necessarily exploitative for us to sit up and take notice and change behaviours, or in Hines’ case, social laws.
La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Abingdon, Oxon. Focal Press.
The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (unknown). Teaching with Documents: Photographs of Lewis Hine: Documentation of Child Labor. At http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/hine-photos/
Cosgrove, B (2014). The Photo that Changed the Face of AIDS. At http://time.com/3503000/behind-the-picture-the-photo-that-changed-the-face-of-aids/