The Age of Work

Photographers Lewis W. Hine and David Parker frame the debate over child labor

"I've heard they do this in India," sniffs a white and well-heeled museumgoer as she moves past David Parker's 1993 photograph of child brickworkers hauling unbelievable loads--not in India, actually, but in Nepal. Around another corner, the spectator comes upon a picture featuring young American glassworkers, photographed by Lewis W. Hine in 1909. The children's geographical proximity may be what gives her a moment's pause, yet their distance in time apparently alleviates worry, as she turns to her companions to discuss the global economy of...George Lucas's Phantom Menace.

Has the twentieth-century global communications explosion that separates Minneapolis photographer Parker from his Progressive-era predecessor spawned a terrible irony? Has our ability to connect with others withered, even as our visual possibilities have proliferated by way of advertising, photography, television, and cinema? Has our visual sophistication only amplified Victorian cultural hierarchies that divide the world into categories of "civilized" and "barbaric," or "First" and "Third" Worlds?

"Newsgirls, Connecticut, 1909" (Lewis W. Hine), top, and "Vendor, India, 1993" (David Parker)
"Newsgirls, Connecticut, 1909" (Lewis W. Hine), top, and "Vendor, India, 1993" (David Parker)

Not for Parker and exhibit curator Ted Hartwell. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts' "Help Wanted: Photographs by Lewis W. Hine and David L. Parker" means to fight the force that hides the world of makers from the view of consumers, and the labor of the past from contemporary sight. It sustains the artistic and radicalist faith that the act of looking can still inspire not only long-distance connection but international action.

From one angle, by comparing the documentary photography of reform pioneer Hine (1874-1940) to that of children's rights advocate Parker (b. 1951), "Help Wanted" offers a before-and-after glimpse of our century's consumer revolution. Behind the Coke bottles that Parker finds littering the world stand Lewis Hine's turn-of-the-century New Jersey and West Virginia glassworkers. A Bon Jovi T-shirt on an adolescent construction worker in 1990s Peru might as well have flowed from the hands of turn-of-the-century southern U.S. cotton-mill girls. Cotton and berry pickers in Texas and Maryland fields have ceded ground to garbage pickers harvesting dumps in late-twentieth-century India, Indonesia, Mexico, and Peru. Where Hine's factory girls treated themselves to dress goods from the department store, the girls photographed by Parker root out plastic treasures in waste heaps. And where Hine once focused on newsboys hawking papers, Parker's lens captures billboards advertising Calcuttan horror films. Yet this appearance of remarkable change masks the exhibition's focus on the tragic continuity of child labor, as well as the persistently optimistic tradition of what curator Hartwell calls "humane photography."

"Some of the parallels are pretty haunting," Parker observes, as he tours the Institute's Harrison Gallery, pointing out the similar way in which children carry their loads of cotton in Texas in 1909 and Turkey in 1997, or the physical hazards faced by industrial workers throughout the century. Offering his "unofficial" yet well-researched estimate that 500 million children under the age of 16 are at work worldwide, Parker maintains that "the question at hand is not the similarities between the photographs, but the fact that child labor still exists, and is actually in many respects a lot worse today than it was."

 

Homework and homelessness, sexual danger and hard labor, heavy machinery and ominous bosses, clotted lungs and gnarled limbs all align the images of Hine and Parker. While everything from Freud to refrigerators separates the two, their activist response to such abiding and perverse exploitation connects the Wisconsin-born social scientist to the New York-born physician-photographer. Both men's work reveals a secular faith that systematic distress can be witnessed, exposed, and eradicated. Hence Hine built his career (and pioneered the social documentary genre of photography) taking pictures of children for the National Child Labor Committee as part of their common pursuit of pro-labor legislation; and Parker has combined his work as an occupational physician and public-health advocate with his photography, exhibits of which he has shown in schools, synagogues, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the U.S. Senate.

In addition to his book Stolen Dreams: Portraits of Working Children, Parker's photographs and scholarly articles have appeared in a slew of publications, including Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports and Labor's Heritage quarterly, as well as on the Harvard School of Public Health's Web site. As part of the Minnesota Historical Society's Minnesota 2000 exhibit (a Works Progress Administration-inspired photography/oral-history project that will open next year), Parker will photograph industrial workers in Minnesota. "It gets to be tough, because I can't do a lot more and still practice medicine," the infectiously ambitious advocate admits.

Parker's activist m.o. blends the scientific and the subjective. He criticizes the dry, monotonous tone of hyperintellectual discussions about child labor, a tendency he calls "academia gone awry": "It's not like you need a study to tell you that people who eat garbage off the top of a dump develop diarrheal diseases." Parker also eschews what he calls "meddling," answering pragmatically when asked how he manages to "walk away" from the children he photographs: "I can think I'm getting involved in other people's fights and helping them, but the fact of the matter is, unless I'm prepared to stay and see the fight won, [it's] better to keep my mouth shut. The bottom line is, it's upsetting, but you gotta keep your mouth shut." Instead, keeping his eyes open and his camera at the ready, Parker suggests, has proven a more effective strategy.

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