Opinion Photos expose the harsh reality of child labor in the United States

A young onion picker in Rio Grande Valley, Tex., in 1979. (Ken Light/Contact Press Images)
4 min

Ken Light is a documentary photographer and professor at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He is author of the forthcoming “Report to the Shareholders” about the Rust Belt in America.

Recent headlines about the widespread exploitation of children in America’s workplaces shocked me, as it did many in our country. It was all the worse that the exploitation targeted undocumented migrant children who had recently entered the United States, seemingly abetted by a Health and Human Services Department determined to clear unaccompanied children from detention.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise. As a documentary photographer of nearly five decades’ experience, I witnessed similarly cruel treatment firsthand in the late 1970s when photographing migrant workers in the agricultural fields throughout the United States for my first book, “With These Hands.” This news story drew me to pull up film contact sheets from the work I did all those decades ago.

Even then, what I was seeing in the fields had much older echoes. I found inspiration in the work of one of our country’s most famous social documentary photographers, Lewis Hine, who in 1908 became the photographer for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). Over the next decade, Hine documented child labor to aid the NCLC’s lobbying efforts to end the practice, photographing in coal mines, meatpacking houses, textile mills, canneries and many other workplaces.

Hine’s photos played a significant role in exposing the harsh realities of child labor in the United States during the early 20th century. He wanted to show both what had to be corrected and what had to be appreciated — namely, that our market full of goods depended on hard labor by some of the country’s smallest inhabitants. His photographs helped to pass the first federal child labor laws in the nineteen-teens. In 1938, finally, the Fair Labor Standards Act set new standards for the hours and conditions under which children could work.

When I started to photograph agriculture workers in 1979 and found children as young as 5 working in the fields, I was stunned. I had thought that Hine and his fellow social advocates had effectively eradicated child labor. But now it was my turn to travel across America to document this phenomenon.

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I got up early in the morning to see children working in the fields. Entire families were picking together because there were few child-care facilities and the family needed the extra income to eat. Often the children were swaddled in blankets half asleep as their parents began work, then slowly joined in, picking onions or tomatoes or strawberries or blueberries or other crops. These children were exposed to pesticides and savage conditions — heat, lack of water and toilets, constant bending — that are so much a part of agriculture. I met a 7-year-old boy being paid 30 cents a bucket to pick tomatoes in Leipsic, Ohio. As I raised my camera, his eyes met mine. I could see his tiredness and his childhood being stolen by this hard labor.

I remember showing my photographs to editors at numerous publications in the early 1980s. “Oh, we know that children work in the fields,” some told me. To many, it was not a sexy-enough story.

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Today, if we show my photographs from more than 40 years ago alongside Hine’s work from more than 100 years ago, it is not because the phenomenon of child labor in America is a new one. It’s because it continues, often with minimal consequences for the companies that benefit, bolstered by the efforts of a conservative advocacy group that is actively trying to roll back labor protections for kids. As Cesar Chavez wrote in the introduction to my book: “Exploitation of farm workers and their children is just as real today as it was twenty years ago. The fight is not over — it has just been renewed. You see, time does not heal injustice; only people do.”

When I was photographing these young children at their work, I often asked myself, where was the empathy for them? A lost childhood is something that can never be regained. Whether in Hine’s era, in mine, or now, children who work in these oppressive conditions need witnesses — and ones who are willing to fight on their behalf.