Some types of child work are visible (street selling) while other jobs stay hidden or hard to find (farmwork). Around the world, the majority of children do domestic labor in their own homes and/or in agriculture, but many have other jobs.

Photographs taken by David Parker over the past three decades reflect common jobs that young people do globally, and they also demonstrate the uneven visibility of child work: some workers are hidden even from the most intrepid photographer. Also left out are images of children in prostitution, slavery, and warfare. Parker has chosen not to display images of prostitution for ethical reasons and others are too dangerous to photograph.

Parker’s photos depicting child labor provoke important questions:

  • How might working children be seen as agents in the economic, familial, or educational settings in which they live and work?
  • When are children the victims of an employer’s exploitation of the state’s inadequate regulation of working conditions?
  • How do young workers understand themselves and their strategies for themselves and their families?
  • Can work conditions, which Parker records out of concern for children’s health, be improved to allow young people to work more safely?
  • However we see and judge the work being done, or respond to what we see, these photographs evoke empathy with and, importantly, respect for the individual child.
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Street Vendor Preparing Food, India

Subject? In this image we see a boy who is in control of his task. Though young, he is clearly capable, showing competence, not looking “victimized” by the work of street vending food.

Object? Nevertheless, he is doing a task that has dangers, with equipment that is the wrong scale for his size and exposure to hot oils and smoke.

Agents? He is making a contribution to his survival and perhaps that of his family. He is learning and using skills: cooking, selling, making change, handling clients.

Questions: Who is supervising and teaching him? Is anyone watching out for his safety? How is this work combined with other learning experiences, like school? Where is he living? Who keeps the revenue from the business?

Respect: What does it mean to respect this young worker? How might we understand what he thinks about his life and his options? What would he like to change?

This exhibit presented by the Social Welfare History Archives.