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Child Labor Photos by Lewis Hine | The Memory Keeper

Child Labor Photos by Lewis Hine | The Memory Keeper
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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.

A cynical view finds Hine as exploitative as the mill owners. He used these children, even if it was for the best of intentions. He took what he needed from them, and by the time they’d blinked the phantom glare of his flash from their eyes, he was gone, never to be seen again.

In today’s society, Hine’s pictures would lead to something. Police would bust down the doors of these factories and ferry the children away to better lives. But that’s not what happened at the turn of the 20th century. These children returned to their spinning machines and their looms and went back to work. They grew up and lived their lives. Many of them likely forgot their brief encounters with Hine. Almost none of them ever saw their photographs or heard how they were used.

“For me, this is an enormous album of unfinished stories,” Manning says, gesturing to his binder. Hine had taken only snapshots: two-dimensional renderings of a single moment in time. Manning needs more than that: “I look at one of these kids, and my reaction is: Whatever happened to this kid? Is that it? Is this all I know? Is this all I’ll ever find out?” That’s Manning’s goal: He wants to find out what happened next. His work is a gigantic footnote that can be filed away someday next to Hine’s photos in the Library of Congress as a reminder that these children were more than just sad pictures. They are more than names on headstones.

When Manning finally catches up to Mamie Laberge, he finds her as an old woman. She appears to him, once again, in a white dress. Her youthful grace has been replaced by the stooped plumpness of age, but she’s smiling. Surrounded by her siblings, she stands on a manicured lawn as they pose for a family portrait in the late 1960s. By this time, Mamie has been married to the same man for more than 40 years. She’s had three children, and, although no one today remembers how, she’s lost parts of two fingers on one hand. In another 10 years or so, she’ll pass away after a long illness, but of course she doesn’t know that yet. Manning does.

“You see their whole life histories in fast-forward,” Manning reflects. “It’s so haunting to see them as children and then see them as 60-year-olds. These kids in 1911 … Think about all the things they didn’t know about the future of the country. Most of them probably thought, like most kids, that their lives would always be the way they were then.”

The photo had come from Karen Czelusniak, one of Mamie’s great-nieces. There were 14 Laberge children in Mamie’s generation, 11 of whom survived to adulthood, so there are plenty of descendants for Manning to track down. He’s taken his time, doing more face-to-face interviews than he has for any other case. Mamie brought him to Winchendon, so he feels it’s only right that hers should be the last story he completes before he leaves.

In the spring of 2010, Manning knocks lightly on the side door of Esther Grimes’ home. She’s the granddaughter of Henry Laberge, one of Mamie’s older brothers, and one of the few direct descendants of the family still living in Winchendon. She shows him into the dining room, neatly decorated with keepsakes and photos. Manning places a bulky tape machine on the table and hits Record.

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Justin Shatwell

Author:

Justin Shatwell

Biography:

Justin Shatwell is a longtime contributor to Yankee Magazine whose work explores the unique history, culture, and art that sets New England apart from the rest of the world. His article, The Memory Keeper (March/April 2011 issue), was named a finalist for profile of the year by the City and Regional Magazine Association.
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