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The Memory Keeper: Child Labor Photos

The Memory Keeper: Child Labor Photos
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Joe Manning scans the long rows of graves in Calvary Cemetery on the southeast side of Winchendon. It’s March 2010, and the onset of spring has taken some of the bite out of the air. He paces up and down the rows in a button-down flannel shirt and an old crumpled jacket, his wrinkled blue eyes searching for one grave in particular.

Henry Smith, who as a child worked in the Glenallan Mill, is eluding him. In a predominantly French Canadian cemetery, it should be easy to pick out such an English name from the sea of Gauthiers and Morins, but Manning is having no luck.

He’s been given a tip that Smith was buried next to a LaRochelle. A friend who’s helping Manning search shouts over to him that he’s spotted a grave with that name. “Where?” he replies. The friend points to a large stone with LaRochelle carved in big block letters. “Oh, that’s Clarinda,” Manning says offhandedly, as if she were an old acquaintance. “We’re looking for a different one.”

After a year and a half working in Winchendon, Manning knows the town’s story better than most people who’ve lived there their entire lives. Overall, Winchendon is a mundane place–a small community on the New Hampshire border that few people in Massachusetts go out of their way to know. Like a lot of other New England towns, it never fully recovered after the mills closed down, and now it just persists. It’s a quiet town with a lot of old people and a lot of old buildings, and Manning is fascinated by every last one of them.

“Winchendon has a history that’s still on the lips of people who talk,” he says. “These kinds of towns interest me. I call them ‘used to be’s. You can still see a lot of what used to be. And if you can’t, you can see a parking lot, and you know that there was a ‘used to be’ in that parking lot.

“If you’re curious, you can ask someone on the street what used to be there, and there’s going to be somebody who’s going to be able to tell you that. If you don’t do that now, in 25 years there won’t be anyone left who can tell you what used to be. They’ll tell you what used to be is now. And there ain’t nothing here anymore.”

In every case he works on, Manning tracks down and interviews any living descendants of the child in the photo. More often than not, they’re the worker’s grandchildren. They remember the person in the photo only distantly, as an elderly person. They can recall family reunions in parlors and what kind of candy he or she kept in the house, but little else.

All memory eventually reaches a vanishing point, and for the children in Hine’s photos, that point is coming up fast. There’s no one left alive who remembers these children as children. There’s no one left who recalls what they were like as teenagers or as young parents. Those memories are gone forever. Manning knows all too well that he’s running out of time, because sometimes he shows up too late.

In Calvary Cemetery there’s one stone that no one visits. The name on it is Eva Caouette. She died of leukemia at the age of 28, two years after she married. Manning couldn’t find a single person in town who remembered her. Her three nieces, daughters of her brothers, had never heard of her. She’s gone.

“Nobody walking through Calvary Cemetery past Eva Caouette is going to look at that and say, ‘I know who she was,’” Manning observes. “That’s it. She’s just a name on a gravestone.”

There’s a lot of truth to the old axiom that a picture is worth a thousand words. It’s especially true of Hine’s work for the National Child Labor Committee. The only problem is that his photos tend to say the same thousand words over and over again. Hine wasn’t interested in telling the stories of the children he photographed; he cared only about telling the story of child labor.

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