A number of years ago I worked freelance for church organizations—not the kind that seem to always catch the headlines today—but the liberal descendants of the mainstream churches of the early 20th century who advocated a “social gospel.” Their mission, as they read the gospels, was to bring justice to the poor and dispossessed of the world. On the thirteenth floor of John D. Rockefeller’s Interchurch Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, known locally as “the God box,” where the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries gathered pictures, stories and evidence for the Christian crusade, a small room had been given over to shelves and shelves of old picture albums. They’d been collected in labeled barrels and kept at a nearby warehouse until then.
The albums were a wonder to me. The bulk of the best pictures were from the first few decades of the 1900s. They were brought together to advance what seemed to Protestant Christianity then like the coming of a new age of “justice rolling down like waters,” of “the new Jerusalem.” Not surprisingly, the theme of much of the material was an evangelistic one, but the call for social justice was also central. What also pleased me was that many of the pictures seemed to have been collected for the sheer joy of viewing.
Among those pictures were dozens of photos by Lewis Hine, a passionate social reformer, who was educated as a sociologist but discovered that he could do more good with a camera than in a classroom. His pictures changed the child labor laws in the United States.
“I’m sure I’m right in my choice of work,” he wrote in 1910. “My child-labor photos have already set the authorities to work to see ‘if such things can be possible.’ They try to get around them by crying ‘Fake’ but therein lies the value of the data and a witness. My ‘sociological horizon’ broadens hourly.”
Or again: “The great social peril is darkness and ignorance. Light is required. Light! Light in floods!”
Hine’s pictures were perhaps the most effective of any in those old picture albums: they convinced Protestant churchmen and women to work for change. But many of the pictures in the books were there for the same reason. They were used in magazines and newspapers, in lantern shows and posters. Hines’ photographs, more than the others, have the distinction of having been taken by an artist. They were not just witnesses to truth. They were, and are, works of art. Their subjects served Hines’ stated purpose, but the photos themselves lived on afterwards, isolated, cut off from their original context of family, and often even of workplace. We admire them because they are beautiful, not because they brought about legislative change.
Which brings us to Susan Sontag’s rather more cynical approach to the photography of do-gooding crusaders in her influential essay, On Photography (1977). “Photography conceived as social documentation was an instrument of that essentially middle-class attitude, both zealous and merely tolerant, both curious and indifferent, called humanism—which found slums the most enthralling of decors.”
I’m prepared to be cynical like the Sontag of the ’70s, until I find an extraordinary websight, http://www.morningsonmaplestreet.com. Its proprietor, Joe Manning, has been tracking down Lewis Hine’s children, one at a time, searching out their descendants, discovering their stories. “The stories, however long or brief, are what they are, and they help us to get to know a few people whose only public persona, for as long as a hundred years, has been a simple snapshot.”
The old photo albums were full of condescension towards the poor; they objectified people; they isolated them from both their own worlds and the viewer’s. Many of them were as colonialistic in intent as their photographers. And yet, they were also a remarkable celebration of life. And I loved them for it.