“Photography is an empathy towards the world.”
Lewis Hine(1874-1940) not only spoke those words, he embodied them. Hine was a social activist with a camera. He was a revolutionary. Lewis Hine, without any doubt, is responsible for keeping America’s children from labouring in sweatshops, factories and fields.
Hine’s story is a fascinating one. You can say it’s heroic. For a country that is forever indebted to him and his work, it is tragically ironic that he died in absolute poverty.
Hine moved to New York City in 1901 to teach at the Ethical Culture School, a school emphasising moral education founded on humanist values. In 1903, he bought his first camera and taught himself how to use it. He used his photographs in his teaching, and in 1904 he created a photography program at the school, likely the nation’s first. Hine took students into the countryside to photograph nature. He also took them into the streets of the city.
Hine saw the tenements and sweatshops. He saw the poverty. He began documenting it. An activist was born. Hine knew that the camera could be a weapon. At this time, Hine began taking photographs at Ellis island, documenting the influx of mostly European immigrants. At this time there was a strong anti-immigration sentiment in the country, not unlike there is right now. Hine portrayed the potential citizens with dignity amidst the chaos of Ellis Island. An amazing feat considering the language barriers and the stressful situation for the scared immigrants.