27 September 2005

Images of Child Labor

I came across a website "Images of Child Labor" that raises all sorts of pressing issues. The website is part of a project "Child Labor in the Global Village: Photography for Social Change" directed by photographer Julia Dean (http://www.juliadean.com/). It has run in tandem with a series of exhibitions that began in (at least) 1999 and parts of which are still showing. The site features work from a half-dozen photographers (several others worked on the project) each of whom depicts a particular dimension of the issue of child labor from a different geographical location.
  • Ernesto Bazan (Cuba) portrays a 13 year old Peruvian girl, Miriam, who works in Huacipa making bricks;
  • Gigi Cohen (USA) portrays Josimene, a ten year old Haitian girl, who works as a domestic servant or restavec for a wealthier family in Port-au-Prince;
  • Brian Finke (USA) portrays Sankar, a young boy who lives in the train station at Bhubaneswar, India who supports himself selling bottled water to passengers;
  • Judy Walgren (USA) portrays the trafficing of young girls at the Nepal-India border and the streets they subsequently work as prostitutes;
  • Jon Warren (USA) records the work of several children (siblings and cousins - boys names Kayrith, 14, and Ratha, 12, and girls named Minea, 10 and Thavara, 11) from a family scavanging in a dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia;
  • Clarence Williams (USA) depicts teenage boys - exemplified by Ntirandekura, age 16 - who are pressed into military service at the Muramvya Training Camp in Burundi by the dire alternative of life in refugee camps.

Several things are notable about the page. First, the photography is in each instance striking. My complaint is that the page gives us only three images from each photo essay and none at all from the other photographers who contributed to the project. Second, in nearly every instance the children are named. This affords viewers a sense of identification with the subject of each photo essay. It also raises the question of whether such identification is something that projects such as this ought to strive for. As a general rule I think this is ill-advised insofar as it encourages viewers to embrace a de-politicizing compassion and risk as well its vicissitudes (e.g., pity, resentment, despair). On the other hand photogrpahers face an ethical imperative to treat individuals as subjects. (One might here recall the criticisms Susan Sontag levelled at Sebastiao Salgado's Migrations project.) This is a bind. Third, the contribution where the subject of the photo esssay is not named is Judy Walgren's work on trafficking in sex workers. This raises ethical matters of anonymity that are extremely important and well-handled here. Finally, in addition to the photographs, the site has a long page of "Frequently Asked Questions" about the nature and extent of child labor as well as various policies that might alleviate it. The informative answers to thes questions refer to various NGOs who work on child labor issues.

The page reminded me of a paper by philosopher Debra Satz ("Child Labor: A Normative Persepctive," World Bank Economic Review 17(2):297-309, 2003) that I recently read. I highly recommend this paper (and all of Debra's other writings on markets of various sorts.) Satz helped me formulate additional questions and insights that implicitly are raised by the contributors to this photography project. We may find child labor objectionable, but not all child labor is alike. Satz urges us to make creful discriminations. There clearly is a difference between the circumstances of children who are compelled, directly or indirectly, into prostitution or military service and those of children, like the Peruvian girl Miriam, who work making bricks. If all child labor is potentially dangerous, some is more obviously and directly so than others. Likewise, there is a difference between children, again like Miriam or the Cambodian boys and girls, who reside with their families and those like the Haitian girl Josimene who must leave her family to take up positions as domestic workers. If all child labor is potentially exploitative, some is more so than others. Whereas Miriam may (may!) actually be participating in something resembling a functioning a labor market, it seems much more likely that Josimene is or will fall into one or another category of forced labor. This is an example where markets (however imperfect) are preferable to the alternatives, if only because they are somewhat more transparent and so leave those who enter them somewhat less susceptible to exploitation. Finally, the page makes clear that Miriam is in school at least part time. So too are some of the boys who live in the train station at Bhubanesewar. And the young Cambodian girl Thavara also expressed the desire to go to school. All this highlights especially dire trade-offs between the immediate economic hardship of children and families versus the documented longer term benefits (individual, social and political) of education. It highlights too the fact that child labor (espcially in its most objectionable forms) often is symptomatic of underlying social, economic and political inequities. The remedies we suggest to child labor therefore must be, as Satz, reminds us, sensitive to these deeper exigencies and trajectories.

Gigi Cohen's contribution to the Images of Child Labor project are on exhibit through late October 2005 as part of Moving Walls 10 at the Open Society Institute in NYC. http://www.soros.org/initiatives/photography/focus_areas/mw/10



Post a Comment

<< Home