photo orangewhite

Click images to enlarge
Hine child laborors
Lewis W. Hine. Shrimp pickers in Peerless Oyster Co. Bay St. Louis, Miss., March 3, 1911.
"On other side of shed still younger children were working. Out of sixty working,... I counted 15 apparently under 12 years of age. Some 3, 4, and 5 years old were picking too.... Boss said they went to work at 3 A.M. and would quit about 3 or 4 P.M."

Farmers children
Marion Post Wolcott. Tenant farmer's children, one with rickets, on badly eroded land near Wadsboro, Nother Carolina, 1938.

Bronx kids
Stephen Shames. Bronx, New York, 1989, from a project on child poverty in America.

In the late ninteenth and early twentieth centuries Jacob Riis, a Danish-born journalist, used photographs to help support his arguments about the need to reform slum life. The title of his most famous work, How the Other Half Lives, remains a simple description of how social photography generally operates, providing a look at the lower classes to awaken the conscience of the middle and upper classes.

Lewis Hine, known for his photographs of child labor, thought that photography could be "a lever for the social uplift." He believed in the realism of photography as a means of providing unquestionable evidence, although he also used accompanying captions and text to give the photographs even more punch by providing telling information.

The photographers of the Farm Security Administration worked for the federal government during the Great Depression of the 1930s. They were hired to photograph the struggles of the rural poor, and the programs designed by the government to provide help. In the end, they provided a complex portrait that went beyond those boundaries, and their work became a model for many later photographers. As images that attempted to rally support for government programs, the FSA photographs — now stored in the Library of Congress — often played on people's sympathies by showing individuals in trouble, and therefore in need of help, but not in such bad shape that aid would not make a difference.

Today, photographers continue to use the camera to win support for social causes: poverty and homelessness, AIDS, the farm crisis, the environment. Sometimes they work independently, sometimes they work as photojournalists, sometimes they work for charitable organizations or government agencies. It has never been easy to find support for social reform photography, or to find outlets where it can be published. But many dedicated photographers are still fired by the belief that if they can show hardship and injustice truthfully, fairly and forcefully, people who see their pictures will be moved to respond.