Child labour photos from 100 years ago that shocked America, in a new avatar
If you love poring over old pictures, chances are you may have come across a black-and-white image of 11-year-old Roland, a newsboy working tirelessly in heavy rainstorm in the America of the 1920s. Or, perhaps that of 8-year-old Jennie Camillo, picking cranberries, her dress muddied and skin tanned. Even Preston, all of just 5, labouring with cartons to make some quick bucks.
Set in the early 20th century, that was a time when, fuelled by Industrial Revolution, children were employed — or exploited — at a very young age as they were easier to manage and could be paid much less than adults. Shot by the famous Lewis Wickes Hine, the images were originally in black-and-white, limited by the technology then.
However, the same photographs are now available in colour, thanks to UK-based professional photo colouriser, Tom Marshall (29), who has breathed life into the long-forgotten snaps taken between 1909 and 1925.
Colourisation is a process by which colour is added to black-and-white images. It could be done as a special effect or to modernise black-and-white photos or films. “I chose to colourise the photos of American child labour due to their historical significance, and the impact that I thought the photos would have in colour,” Tom said.
Explaining the reason for choosing Hine’s photos, he said, “When I choose photos, I always try to look for clear and crisp images that engage the viewer. Lewis Wickes Hine’s photos are perfect for this, especially those where the children look directly into the camera. When colour is applied I think their faces seem more ‘alive’.”
“The issue of child labour itself is still very relevant worldwide, and I consciously chose the subject to get people talking about it. When my images are published I’m always fascinated by the online comment threads and the debates that they can spark,” says Tom, who’s colourising company is called PhotograFix and deals with some of the world’s leading museums, photo archives and publishers,” he added.
But how did the original photographer, Hine, manage to get these images clicked—there must have been some risk involved for sure? And how did he get access to such places where child labour was rampant?
“Hine took considerable risks to take the photos. He was employed by the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), whose mission was to promote the rights, awareness, dignity, well-being and education of children and youth as they relate to work and working. To be able to document the children at work, he couldn’t simply ask for permission and so would resort to wearing disguises such as a fire inspector or industrial photographer (making a record of factory machinery) in order to gain access to the workshops. He was threatened with violence and death from factory foremen. So it was a risky business,” explained Tom.
However, how is it that such a practice was allowed to run in America for such a long time, and to what extent?
“Child labour wasn’t exactly a secret in America at the time, but it wasn’t something discussed in ‘polite society’. The 1900 US Census listed that 1,752,187 children between the ages of five and ten were employed in ‘gainful occupations’. This was a 50% increase from the 1880 figure, and the NCLC made a point of showcasing this worrying trend. Hine’s photos brought the issue to the attention of the wider public.
“Hine wasn’t alone in taking these photos—there were other documentary photographers—but Hine was a pioneer in the way that he used his medium as a tool for social reform. His training in sociology allowed him to use the camera as a means of tugging at America’s heartstrings,” said Tom.
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