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The Impact of Lewis Hine’s Photography, Shining a Light on Child Labour

On the World Day Against Child Labour, read how the investigative work of Lewis Hine strongly impacted the child labor law in the United States and played a crucial role in initiating reform and shaping public opinion.

In the early 1900s, Lewis Hine was one of the most influential photographers whose investigative work led to the enactment of the first child labour legislation in the United States. Hine exposed the brutal realities of child labour in the early 20th century with his powerful and thought-provoking photographs. 

Between 1908 and 1924, Hine photographed the working and living situations of children in the United States as an investigator for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). This article explores the incredible impact of Lewis Hine’s work on the world and the legacy he has left behind.

Lewis Hine: “There is work that profits children, and there is work that brings profit only to employers. The object of employing children is not to train them, but to get high profits from their work.”


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IMAGO / glasshouseimages | Young boy working as greaser in a coal mine by Lewis Hine. 1910, Bessie Mine, Alabama, USA.

A Window Into a Dark World of Child Labour

Child labour was a substantial problem in the United States in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The law was either not implemented or was not taken seriously. At the same time, it was generally accepted that putting a child to work to improve a family’s financial status wasn’t wrong while the family was impoverished. 

As a result, low-income families often made their homes in the workplace, and children often spent their days working or playing in a hazardous environment. Including the children, it was estimated that these families were putting in over 70 hours of labour every week.  

This is the context in which Lewis W. Hine began his career as an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee. The idea behind this was that society and politicians wouldn’t respond to the issue or take any action until the pain of these children was seen in actuality. 

Hine went to work in factories, mines, and sweatshops to document the lives of children forced to work in hazardous environments. His photographs were more than just snapshots; they were windows into the hidden pain of young labourers.


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IMAGO / glasshouseimages / Circa Images | Wanted, a young boys sign advertisement by Lewis Hine. 1916, New York City, USA.

imago/ZUMA Press
IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / JT Vintage | Two young boys climbing on a spinning frame to mend broken threads and put back empty bobbins. Photo by Lewis Hine for National Child Labor Committee, January 1909, Macon, Georgia, USA.

Revealing the Pain of Child Labor with the Impactful Work of  Lewis Hine

We see the tragic scenes of youngsters as young as five or six years old working for long hours through Hine’s perspective. Their expressions of exhaustion and hardship contrasted sharply with the innocent youth they were denied. 

More than 5,100 photographic prints and 355 glass negatives were donated to the Library of Congress from the collection he worked on. 

His groundbreaking research not only uncovered pervasive child exploitation but also initiated reform and shaped public opinion. The widespread distribution of Hine’s photographs aided the movement to end child labour. As a result, many jurisdictions adopted stricter bans on employing children. The Federal Wage and Hour Law was created by Congress in 1938. The United States Supreme Court ruled that the Act was constitutional in 1941.


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IMAGO / glasshouseimages / Circa Images | 6 years old cotton picker by Lewis Hine for National Child Labor Committee. October 1916, Comanche County, Oklahoma, USA.

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IMAGO / glasshouseimages / Circa Images | Portrait of a 15-year old boy working as a trapper at a coal mine. Photo by Lewis Hine. 1908, West Virginia, USA.

The Power of Visual Advocacy by Lewis Hine

What Hine achieved was groundbreaking in that it was one of the first cases of investigative and photographic documentation. The photographs taken by Hine were more than just works of art; they were also powerful agents of social transformation. His ability to depict the humanity of the children workers and the systemic problems of child labour compelled audiences to take action. He started making a difference by documenting child labour with photographs.

See IMAGO’s photos from Hine Lewis here.


imago/ZUMA Press
IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / JT Vintage | A large group of breaker boys inside ewen breaker, by Lewis Hine for National Child Labor Committee. January 1911, South Pittston, Pennsylvania, USA.

IMAGO/piemags
IMAGO / piemags / brookmuseupie | Child Labor in the Tobacco field by Lewis Hine. 1916, USA.

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IMAGO / glasshouseimages / Circa Images | Group of breaker boys by Lewis Hine for National Child Labor Committee. January 1916, Pittston, Pennsylvania, USA.

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IMAGO / glasshouseimages / Circa Images | A 5 years old child works as a cotton picker by Lewis Hine for National Child Labor Committee, October 1916, Comanche County, Oklahoma, USA.

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IMAGO / glasshouseimages / Circa Images | Albert Schafer, the 8 years old worker by Lewis Hine for the National Child Labor Committee. October 1913, Austin, Texas, USA.

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IMAGO / Artokoloro | A worker boy asleep on stairs with papers by Lewis Hine. February 1912, Jersey City, New Jersey, USA.

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IMAGO / glasshouseimages / Circa Images | The young workers by Lewis Hine for the National Child Labor Committee. November 1908, Lancaster Mills, Lancaster, South Carolina, USA.

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IMAGO / glasshouseimages / Circa Images | The 9-year-old girl picking cranberries in a bog with her father by Lewis Hine. 1911, Wareham, Massachusetts, USA.

imago/ZUMA Press
IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / JT Vintage | A group of young coal miners waiting for a cage to go up at the end of the work day by Lewis Hine for the National Child Labor Committee. January 1911,South Pittston, Pennsylvania, USA.

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IMAGO / glasshouseimages / Circa Images | Three mine worker boys by Lewis Hine. 1910, Aurora, Missouri, USA.

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IMAGO / glasshouseimages / Circa Images | 5-year-old boy working as shrimp picker by Lewis Hine. 1911, Biloxi, Mississippi, USA.

imago/ZUMA Press
IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / JT Vintage | Group of boys working at Midnight at Glass Factory, by Lewis Hine for National Child Labor Committee. August 1908, Indiana, USA.

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IMAGO / Photo12 / Ann Ronan Picture Library | Young workers going home from Barnesville Mine by Lewis Wickes Hine. 1908, Fairmont, West Virginia, USA.

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IMAGO / glasshouseimages / Circa Images | Young boy delivering boxes with push cart by Lewis Hine.1912, Roxbury, Massachusetts, USA.

imago/ZUMA Press
IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / JT Vintage | John Dempsey, 11 or 12 years old, worker in Mule-Spinning room by Lewis Hine for National Child Labor Committee. April 1909, Rhode Island, USA.