Bringing an NCLC Photo into Focus

#2443 Eight year old Syrian girl, Pheobe [i.e. Phoebe] Thomas, going to work at 6 a.m., August 14, with great butcher knife, to cut sardines in Seacoast Canning Co. Factory #4, Eastport Me. Said she was a cutter, and I saw her working later. (See photos of her accident, #2444, #2445, #2449.)

Thus, ominously, begins one of the most heart-rending stories conveyed through the NCLC's highly narrative captions. The words of the next caption prepare the eyes to absorb what the photo will show:

#2444 In center of the picture is Phoebe Thomas, 8 year old Syrian girl, running home from the factory all alone, her hand and arm bathed with blood, crying at the top of her voice. She had cut the end of her thumb nearly off, cutting sardines in the factory, and was sent home alone, her mother being busy. The loss of blood was considerable, and might have been serious. (See succeeding photos.)

On first glance at the accompanying photo, however, the image seems to come nowhere near to conveying the anguish of that moment. The angle and distance from which the photographer took the photo obscure its subject. While Phoebe is, indeed, at the center of the photo, she blends so well into the background that the focus of the photo is not clearly apparent: Is it the men striding down the dirt lane or, perhaps, the general scene in this semi-industrial neighborhood, with its billowing smokestack in the background? Viewed as just one of several figures in the scene, Phoebe merely seems to be a little girl in a hurry, if one notices her at all.


In center of the picture is Phoebe Thomas, 8 year old Syrian girl (cropped and lightened)
No. 2444
cropped and lightened

Once the original photographic print had been digitized, however, it became possible to see how fully the photographer (who was most likely Lewis Hine) captured the moment--perhaps more than even he realized. By retrieving the high resolution tiff image, zooming in on the section of the photo that Phoebe occupies, and lightening it, her distress becomes much more apparent. The angle at which she holds her injured hand and her furrowed brow reinforce the sensory details conveyed in the caption--the sight as well as the sounds of a child hurt and alone.

The photographer saw this incident to its conclusion, photographing Phoebe "a little while after the accident," and then revisiting Phoebe (or, more specifically, her thumb) a week later.

Hine #2445 Phoebe a little while after the accident
No. 2445 Phoebe, a little while after the accident.
No. 2449 Phoebe's
      thumb, a week after the accident...
No. 2449 Phoebe's thumb, a week after the accident...
NCLC album - two page spread showing Phoebe photos
NCLC album - two page spread showing Phoebe photos

In the past, researchers looked at this photo grouped with other photos in an album relating to canneries, or, in more recent years, viewed it on a microfilm that the Prints and Photographs Division used as a reference copy for the NCLC photo albums. Seeing the photo in album or microfilm contexts, people probably passed over it as a not very informative image, however telling the incident was regarding the lack of safety measures for children in the canning factories.

The availability of high resolution scans of the NCLC photos and searchable NCLC captions affords viewers a fresh look at the collection. They help bring into focus the information the photographer intended text and words, together, to convey. And they bring to light the stories NCLC staff used as a tool to persuade.

View all the photos relating to sardine canneries in Eastport, Maine (53 photos).

Library of Congress
( April 13, 2004 )