The USPS launched a new panel of stamps this week dedicated to industrial workers. Lewis Hine -- a social reform photographer of the early 1900s, made all but one of the images on the stamp panels. It was Hine's photographs of children working in sweat shops, from the textile mills to coal mines, that helped to reform America's education system.
However, the focus of the "Made in America ~ Building a Nation" stamp theme features Hine's photography from the building of the Empire State Building to airplane manufacturing. The ideological message behind the release of the stamps represents not only a celebration of an era of unprecedented industrial growth and world dominance economically, but also the work of a great and important photographer.
For decades the Postal Service has released stamps with historical significance and collectors love them. According to a press release, the "Made in America" stamps honor “the workers who were essential to the growth of the modern United States."
In one way, the use of Hine's images in this context only shows half of the story. Hine was both documentarian and crusader.
What we see in this collection are images commemorating the "working man" and some women, when not in the kitchen, as a legacy of industry and capitalism. As is the case with many iconic images used out of context there is a feeling of appropriation and exploitation in that the stamps use the images to tell what is perceived as an idealized America. Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words, but whose words are they?
While we can look upon Hine's images as nostalgic social and cultural artifacts, there is also a sense of no turning back.
Ideologically, while we celebrate the American worker through Hine's pictures, so many of the products we consume today such as smart phones, televisions, clothing and other goods are made abroad in sweat shops not so dissimilar than those Hine made to raise awareness of gross social injustices.