What Can We See?
In this powerful black-and-white photograph, a group of 18 boys and men pose for the photographer and stare intently into the lens. Right away we can tell the picture is of a historical, documentary nature that depicts a time long gone.
Clad in their own filthy work clothing, the group appears to be at an outdoor work site. They stand on ground comprising dirt and debris and an iron track, while an austere structure with a peaked roof looms in the background.
There is one boy, front and center, who commands our initial attention. Standing slightly in front of the others, he is clearly the photographer’s focus within a somewhat shallow depth of field. The boy holds a glistening black can with a handle and a spout, while his other hand forms a rather peculiar taught position. His eyebrows furrowed and his mouth sealed shut, he stares with determination into the blazing sunshine.
Around him are boys and men striking their own pose: some echo the boy’s stern gaze or appear dubious or curious, while others are more at ease, adopting a casual stance and the suggestion of a smile. The workers don hats of varying styles, but five of them have the same indiscernible object attached to the front of their caps. A lamp bracket, possibly? A few wear gloves and a couple grasp tools that fall by their sides. It’s not possible to know what all of the workers ethnicities are, but four appear to be African or African American.
What Do We Know About the Image?
The image was made by the photographer Lewis Hine in Jefferson, Alabama, in December 1910, and we have the great fortune of being privy to Hines’ notes on the picture, which answer a lot of questions about the photograph: “Shorpy Higginbotham, a ‘greaser’ on the tipple at Bessie Mine of the Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Company. Said he was 14 years old, but it is doubtful. Carries two heavy pails of grease and is often in danger of being run over by the coal cars.”
Although not all of the workers appear to be as young, learning that the main subject of the photograph, Shorpy Higginbotham, is likely less than 14 years old speaks to the realities of that era. Despite a small recession in 1907, the United States’ economy was relatively strong in 1910. However, the U.S. was still a very young country, and its citizens were largely of the scrappy, ambitious ilk: most were here to make a better life for themselves, even if that meant taking a job that put their health or lives at risk.
How Does It Make Us Feel?
When I look at this photograph, the first thing I feel is thankful that this history has been preserved. It is so important to know where we came from, and nothing says it quite like a picture—although I am admittedly biased!
The second thing I feel is a hybrid of emotion. To see people—much less adolescents—working in these conditions is painful. I don’t know what their personal situations were or how desperate they might have been, but my imagination veers toward the worst. I assume life was quite difficult for these people, and yet I wouldn’t be surprised either if they had a contagious joie de vivre despite their realities.
At the same time, I feel admiration for their tenacity to earn an honest living and am inspired by their work ethic despite the challenges they most certainly faced.
I wish I had been there with Hine. Each of their faces tells a story, and I would have liked to learn them.
Your Turn! Bashkir Switch Operator
Here is a photograph of a switchman in the Ural mountains of Russia. It was also made in 1910. This photograph feels worlds apart, even though it is a portrait and includes many of the same compositional elements as our first example. Why does it feel so different? What is special about this picture?