- story by Ellis Anderson, photos by Lewis Hine and Joe Tomasovsky
Lewis Hine, one of the most prolific photographers of the early 1900s, traveled the country for decades documenting child labor in factories, mills, mines, and processing plants. He made two trips to the Mississippi coast. A powerful new exhibit of 25 restored Hine images is now on display at the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum in Biloxi, through July 8th (reception June 29th, 5 - 7pm).
One of the exhibit’s photographs is of a little girl named Sadie Kelly. If Sadie were still alive today, she’d be 116 years old. But when Lewis Hine took her photograph in Bay St. Louis, she was only 11. She’d cleaned five pots of shrimp the day he snapped her photograph, all to bring home a nickel in earnings.
The day before, Sadie had worked longer, finishing off seven pots of shrimp. Even at her young age, she was an experienced hand. She’d started the rough job the year before, when she was 10. We know these details from the notes Hine made when he captured her image on his first trip to the Mississippi coast in 1911.
The photo tells more of the story. Sadie’s expression is one of utter exhaustion. She’s too tired to show curiosity about the strange man holding a very large camera and pointing it in her direction, something that would have been an extraordinary novelty in those times. Someone has crudely shaved her head, probably to prevent lice. Dark smudges of dirt and maybe blood cover her small hands, swollen and torn from shelling hundreds of prickly shrimp.
Some of the cheapest sources of labor were children. No matter the industry or its location in the country, profit margins soared by paying desperate adults starvation wages. They went up even further if the family’s children worked as well. Children were paid a fraction of the pittance the adults earned. They were nimble, too, their small fingers able to perform often-dangerous tasks that adults could not.
“If people could see for themselves the abuses and injustice of child labor, surely they would demand laws to end those evils. His pictures of sooty-faced boys in coal mines and small girls tending giant machines revealed a shocking reality that most Americans had never seen before.”
Joe, who grew up in Gulfport, had taught Hine’s work to his Florida photography students for years before his retirement, but only recently discovered that Hine had taken pictures on the Mississippi coast. He felt the images needed a wider audience and began the restoration project as part of his work with the Mississippi Gulf Coast Museum of Historical Photography (MOHP).
According to Joe, the digital files in the Library of Congress are scans of contact prints made from Hine’s original glass 5-by-7-inch negatives. He sifted through the thousands of available images Hine took in his travels to find ones relevant to the Gulf Coast and the seafood industry.
“Hine believed he could use photography as a political tool to bring about change for these people. He was part of what’s now known as the Progressive Movement.”
The George Washington University website defines those early Progressives as “people who believed that the problems society faced (poverty, violence, greed, racism, class warfare) could best be addressed by providing good education, a safe environment, and an efficient workplace… They concentrated on exposing the evils of corporate greed, combating fear of immigrants, and urging Americans to think hard about what democracy meant.”
Lewis Hine lived long enough to see his work have a major impact. In 1938, Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act into law, a federal mandate that prohibited children under 16 from working in manufacturing and mining.
Hine died in 1940, before the law was strengthened in 1949 to include other types of jobs. But child labor is still a major issue worldwide today (including in the United States) so the work of Hine continues to be relevant, generations later.
“But no one could diminish the power of his work. This exhibit is a tribute to what one man was able to accomplish using the lens of his camera.”
The Bay St. Louis Library plans to host part of the Hine exhibit sometime later in 2016, focusing on images from Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian. Keep on eye on our Upcoming Events page; details will be posted there as soon as they’re available.