When I began photographing child labor in 1992, I had no idea how many children worked, what their working conditions were like, or how difficult it would be to document the issue. Although many factories and workplaces were open and easy to photograph, others were closed and unwelcoming. To gain entry into some factories, I presented myself as a buyer of shirts, carpets, or other products for an international corporation with only a post office box for an address.
I was surprised at what lay just beyond the surface of everyday activity. In 1993, during my first trip to Nepal, I visited dozens of carpet factories where children were hand-knotting carpets in cramped, musty rooms. After leaving Nepal, I went to Bangladesh and photographed children working waist deep in leather-tanning chemicals and scavenging plastic and cardboard amid the rotting waste in garbage dumps.
These photographs portray the range of work and working conditions of children around the world. In a larger sense, this work documents an ongoing failure to meet children's basic needs-a goal that is clearly out of reach of their families. I have no doubt that poverty forces most working children and their families to become victims of economic exploitation. Some of these situations, such as sex trafficking, make regular news headlines. But problems such as lack of schools and lack of jobs from which parents can earn enough money to feed a small family go largely unnoticed.
Seeking to protect children from what are often deplorable working conditions, national and international communities have implemented laws and treaties to regulate child labor. Since the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, dozens of international treaties concerning children's rights have been written.
Overall, working conditions for such most children are pathetic. Most work sites lack sanitary facilities and clean drinking water. Child workers are exposed to excessive noise, clouds of dust, and other safety hazards. They eat food they find on the street or in the garbage dump, drink water and bathe in the same pond where they wash their tools and mix mud for making bricks, and live on the street or in cardboard huts.
Because children are still developing physically and mentally, harmful substances have a greater impact on them than on older workers. Pound for pound, children breathe more air, eat more food, and drink more water than adults do. Toxic chemicals such as mercury or lead can cause brain damage and permanent disabilities.
Children work long hours with little time for rest, play, or school, and even jobs that seem relatively safe place children at risk. Street vendors may leave for work at four or five a.m. and not return home until late at night. They go long stretches without eating. They may be robbed or abused. Street children often work for unscrupulous adults who refuse to pay them, cheat them of their earnings, or sexually exploit them.
child labor gallery
Almost every aspect of American life is amply documented in photographs. On virtually every desk are photographs of children, spouses, pets, or places we have visited. Most homes are filled with family portraits across several generations and vacation snapshots of children standing in front of Mount Rushmore or peering into the Grand Canyon. Noticeably absent from these images are pictures of ourselves at work. While we spend more time at work than in almost any other activity in our lives, photographs from and about our work are missing.
Similarly, documentary and professional photographers have created few portraits of contemporary American working life. While historically photography has provided glimpses into factories, across the farm fields, or into the lives of migrant workers, these images were limited by the vastness of the subject as well as the frequently inaccessible work site.
The American workplace continues to be largely off limits to photographers. Owners cite liability concerns or trade secrets to keep people off the premises. Furthermore, while most people love to pose in front of the camera at home, many of us are wary of cameras within a workplace. Although there is a large body of literature about work, the workplace remains hidden behind closed and sometimes locked doors.
Labor historian Peter Rachleff, citing Stan Weir, writes, "We are starved for images of ourselves….for identity and for aids to communicate the condition of our lives and the good in them. But the millions who do the so-called 'unskilled,' 'semi-skilled,' 'craft,' and even 'professional' jobs in American workplaces are seldom, if ever, represented fairly in the popular literature and media of the nation."
The loyalty workers show towards their employers is reflected in their long-term employment and the relationships that are formed within the workplace. Mark Fromke, a labor leader, went to work at American Crystal Sugar in East Grand Forks when he was 23. "I came here to pay some debts. And the place grabbed me. I met my wife here. I was married to her for 18 years before she died of breast cancer." And describing the relationship between his employer and the community Mark notes, "They live in the Red River Valley. Their children go to the same schools as our children go to, we go to the same churches, many of the workers at our factories, their uncles and nieces, and cousins, and brothers-in-laws of the farmers who own these factories, and so the farmers have a great interest in also supplying jobs and having their community survive."
"And for us as workers, union workers, as farmers, as Crystal Sugar management, we have a unique opportunity to come together. I am not saying that we don't have differences on other issues, but where we can agree let's agree, and where we disagree, lets talk about that later. But on issues on which we can agree, about saving jobs, about saving our jobs, saving farmers, our farmers, saving our communities, that means management, farmers, and us. These are our communities. If we can do that and do that and deal with each other very honestly, openly and put our cards on the table and don't try to get try to get an upper hand, we can do tremendous things, because we all come from the same community."
Sadly, many of places shown in these images have closed. Some were sold to other corporations and others could not compete with low wage labor found in other parts of the world.