Faces of Child Labor

Faces of Child Labor

For the past 15 years David Parker has been waging a battle against child labor. His weapons are humble: a Leica camera and a roll of 35-mm black-and-white film.

Parker, M.P.H. ’82, is an occupational physician and epidemiologist in Minneapolis, but his passion is traveling the world photographing the abuses to which its youngest human inhabitants are regularly subjected. He’s seen children in Nepal hand-knotting carpets in cramped, musty rooms, and kids in Bangladesh toiling waist-deep in leather-tanning chemicals and scavenging plastic and cardboard from garbage dumps.

Worldwide, nearly 218 million children work at jobs where they’re exposed to physical abuse, toxic pesticides, and dangerous tools. Often they’re unpaid and underfed; many are slaves. By taking their pictures, Parker hopes to publicize their plight and to “have an impact.”

He takes heart from the example of the Nicaraguan government, which several years ago asked him to document instances of hazardous child labor in the Central American nation, and subsequently toured an exhibition of Parker’s work around the country. In recent years, Parker has seen a dramatic shift in global awareness of the problem. A number of new international treaties have been drawn up, and many countries, he says, “are really pushing to eliminate the worst forms of child labor.”

Parker’s toughest assignment, emotionally, was to photograph survivors of the civil war in Sierra Leone, “people who’d had their arms chopped off, child soldiers, children starving in the refugee camps.” Physically, the task of photographing children in a Bangladesh garbage dump was also difficult. “The smell and the flies are horrible, and sometimes the rats, but especially the smell and the flies.”

Parker’s third book, Before Their Time: The World of Child Labor, came out this fall. He’s at work on a new collection of photographs illustrating critical public health issues, including hunger, leprosy, malnutrition, and environmental degradation. For more on his work visit www.childlaborphotographs.com.

Parker shoots primarily in black and white film with a Leica camera. Although he says it’s “more and more difficult to find film,” he prefers the look and feel of the pictures it generates. “I think in some respects the difference between film and digital photography is perhaps as dramatic as the difference between painting and photographic images.”

David Parker’s third book, Before Their Time: The World of Child Labor, came out this fall. He’s at work on a new collection of photographs illustrating critical public health issues, including hunger, leprosy, malnutrition, and environmental degradation. For more on his work visit www.childlaborphotographs.com.

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