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The Memory Keeper: Child Labor Photos

The Memory Keeper: Child Labor Photos
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The search took three months. In his notes, Hine had called the girl “Addie Laird,” but that was a misspelling. Winthrop had found through census and town records that she’d been born Adeline Card, her name until she married Edward Hatch in 1915.

Manning then discovered that Hatch had divorced Addie for “abandonment” when their daughter was 6 years old. At that point the trail went cold. But Manning looked for Addie’s daughter and found that she had one living descendant, a daughter of her own. He tracked down her phone number, and, though she’d met her estranged grandmother only once, she was able to point Manning toward Cohoes, New York.

There, he picked up the scent again, finding a document referring to Addie as Mrs. Ernest LaVigne. She and her second husband had adopted a daughter, and Addie had lived to see the birth of two more grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren. In January 2006 Manning interviewed two family members. They shared with him their loving memories of a woman they’d called “Granmma Pat.” Apparently, she’d always hated the name Adeline. She’d died in 1993 at the age of 94.

Not long after the Addie Card quest,
Manning cloistered himself in his home office and tried to track down some of the other Hine children. He kept it a secret from his wife at first, but once he’d found his second child–a North Carolina spinner named Minnie Carpenter–he showed her his work and the list of leads he had for other children. Manning recalls his wife looking at him tenderly and saying, “Well, I guess I’ll never see you again.”

Lewis Hine was an artist working in the medium of guilt. When he arrived in Winchendon in September 1911, he knew exactly what he was looking for. Though he prided himself on never staging a photo, he deliberately looked for images that supported his position. Hine believed that child labor was wrong. By today’s standards, that moral stand seems hardly daring, but at that time, child labor was an accepted practice. Where child-labor laws existed, they were poorly enforced, and Hine routinely found children under the age of 10 working amidst the whirling gears of American industry.

Hine is remembered as one of the pioneers of documentary photography. In his day, social reformers were just learning to appreciate the power of images. It was harder for people to condone a sin once they’d seen it for themselves, so reformers would hire photographers to produce images of working-class realities that they could then inject into the parlors of middle-class homes. Hine was one of the best.

Manning always keeps this in mind when he’s working. Though Hine is never in the photo, he’s there, behind the lens, telling a story of his own. Manning can see that story clearly in the photo of Mamie Laberge.

“I don’t know whether there’s any girl in American history who is as beautiful as this photo is,” he says. “When you look at Hine’s pictures, you say, They could be my ancestors or They could have been my kids.” Hine spent two days in Winchendon and took 40 photos there. Mamie is in 12 of them. He was fixated on her; she had a grace and an innocence that made her the perfect model. She didn’t look entirely like a victim, but she definitely wasn’t free–like a defiant princess locked in a tower. When you look at her, you don’t see someone you want to pity; you see someone you want to save.

When Manning first saw her photo, he knew he’d found his next big project. Until this point, he’d worked primarily online or over the phone. Hine had taken photographs all over the country, and Manning couldn’t afford to chase after him in person. But Winchendon was only an hour and a half from his home. He could do this one. He could see the whole story for himself.

It took Manning only a couple of hours to determine that Mamie wasn’t Woolley’s great-aunt, but by then the question was irrelevant for him. The project had grown: When Manning first drove into Winchendon in September 2008, 97 years after Hine, he brought with him all 40 photos, printed and collected in a three-ring binder on his passenger seat. He was going to find them all.

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