The Age of Work

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

This emphasis on observing rather than participating reflects, in part, the impact of cultural relativism on Progressive perspectives since Hine's time. While his commitment to social justice is steadfast, Parker avoids easy moral judgments. Contextualizing his images, he points to the cultural construction of childhood as well as the varied social contexts of work as factors that complicate the international debate over child labor. "It's too easy to say, 'Child labor--bad, no good, very naughty, this shouldn't happen.' The fact of the matter is that the boundaries we set are, in the end, arbitrary."

By contrast, Hine's "scientific" captions sometimes prove harsh and intrusive, as in the case of "Mrs. Annie DeMartius Nursing a Dirty Baby While She Picks Nuts, New York City, 1911." Then again, the social-justice movements that shaped both Hine and the reactions of his audience are largely absent today. "I don't think of us as very progressive," Parker admits when asked to characterize the current political climate in the U.S. "Not these days, I regret to say." When asked about the capacity of his photographs to shatter "First World" complacency (and informed of the gallerygoer's reference to The Phantom Menace), Parker shrugs. "People are bigoted." As Susan Sontag put it in her 1977 book On Photography, "What determines the possibility of being affected morally by photographs is the existence of a relevant political consciousness."

Yet Parker does aim to bridge the emotional distance even between a resistant viewer and the viewed by way of stylistically irresistible images. For Hine, the image that "packed the most powerful social punch" was also the one with the strongest aesthetic impact; similarly, Parker describes a dialectic between his social message and his aesthetic messenger. "I think that images that are not aesthetically strong are not going to capture the viewer. If you want an image that conveys a message, even if it's a message that may not be one that people want to get, the images have to stand on their own, or else people don't look at them. Aesthetics is a trap in this instance: It brings people in, and when they walk away, they suddenly realize they've been tricked into looking."

"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)

Parker's images are simultaneously beautiful and distressing, as he evokes children's dignity and degradation, pride and vulnerability, strength and pain, youthfulness and premature age, in what might be called a social-realist exposé style. Both Hine and Parker seek visual intimacy in profoundly alienating contexts. Yet while Parker frequently features vulnerable, wounded, and exploited children in his photographs, he draws a line between the exploitation he documents and that which he thinks is purveyed by other contemporary photographers.

"There are two people whose work I really can't stand: Sally Mann is one and Jock Sturges is another," Parker says, referring to two celebrated yet controversial photographers of children. "I just see that work as phenomenal exploitation. It's one thing to reveal a kid's pain; it's another thing to use that pain. And it can't come from a position of power."

Critics might ask whether Parker, as a white Western traveler with money in his pocket and camera in hand, photographs his subjects from "a position of power." Does he replicate the imperialist gaze, as they say in theory circles? Such a question doesn't seem to engage this pragmatic activist, who is schooled in anthropology and sociology as well as medicine, and who defines his project in terms of social justice rather than imperial acquisition. "I actually think that kids really like it when I'm photographing them--it's unusual for kids not to like it."

And how do the children whom Parker photographs view him? "It's hard to ask a seven-year-old how they see you."

 

"Help Wanted: Photographs by Lewis W. Hine and David L. Parker" is on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art through September 26; (612) 870-3131.

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