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The Age of Work

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

"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?

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.

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."

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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