Before Their Time

In the foreword to Before Their Time: The World of Child Labor, US Senator Tom Harkin describes photographer David L Parker’s work as ‘intimate, respectful, and engaging’. Indeed, that some of the otherwise downtrodden subjects are smiling is only testament to his capturing of their ‘full humanity’ he concludes. And yet this sits rather uncomfortably with Parker’s own description of children and their families as but ‘victims of economic exploitation’. Yes, Parker is right to note how the grand-sounding rhetoric of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – signed up to by developing world governments a little too keen on signing away their sovereignty – is a practical irrelevance for the children featured. But does book has little to take us beyond such empty rights-talk.

The propensity of moral campaigners over here to project their anxieties and discomfort with the modern world, onto those parts yet to feel its benefits, are evident. Parker’s concern that these ‘at risk’ children are not ‘safe, healthy, and educated’ is a rather odd point to make when they are also living in absolute poverty. On the other hand, neither are they modern slaves. Are the circus children really in a ‘slavery-like situation’ and do domestic workers live in ‘virtual slavery’? The qualifiers speak volumes. Indeed the specific hardships these children inevitably encounter are swept up in a general sense of forboding about the dangers children face, not least from the ‘unscrupulous adults’ who apparently prey on them.

As the often striking photography in this book documents, children around the world engage in a variety of labour-intensive occupations. In agriculture and animal husbandry, mines and quarries, in textiles and manufacturing. But the images are distorted somewhat with a rather indulgent and misanthropic coffee-table commentary that is very contemporary. (By chance in the course of writing this review a ticket came my way for the opening of The Changing Face of Childhood at Dulwich Picture Gallery, featuring work by the likes of Van Dyck and Gainsborough. The rosy depictions of a privileged childhood in these 18th century portraits also expressed the optimism of the age. It wasn’t a society alienated from its own achievements as ours is. Of course one features the offspring of aristocrats, the other the progeny of poverty. But even allowing for this, the treatment of childhood is quite different.)

The children perched on fishing platforms in Indonesia are exposed as the ocean cuts off their ‘escape’ from the ‘bosses [who] often subject the children to physical and sexual abuse’. The children searching for conch shells in the towering mangrove swamps of Nicaragua seem entangled and isolated. There are few adults around. And given what they tend to get up to that’s probably best. At least that is the implication. It is difficult to know what conclusion you are supposed to draw when child labour is made to sit next to images of imminent child abuse. Its all the same apparently, an indictment of what adults do to children in Nicaragua, Sierra Leone, Nepal, Morocco, Mexico, India, Bolivia and Turkey – the world over.

For some, their spirits are yet to be broken by hard labour, while others seem to be peering out at the viewer awaiting our intervention, to be ‘saved’ by the kindly campaigner, NGO, aging rock star or displacement-activity-seeking politician. The little girl making firecrackers in Guatemala looks like an ordinary little girl. Others look hardened as if they’ve lived too much already. The Bangladeshi boy hanging out of a leather tanning drum may as well be up a chimney. Whereas the sinister-looking leather tanning machine in India looks ready to devour anybody that goes near it, much like the mechanical monster in the film Metropolis.The Indian boy welding (on the front cover), the steady gaze of his Guatemalan equivalent surrounded by the tools of his trade – each suggests a maturity beyond their years.

There are the burnt-scarred arms of the Guatemalan boy from the firework factory. The dry and scabby hand propped up against the soft cheek of a tiny Nepalese carpet-weaving girl. The Indian boy working at his lathe seems routine enough until you notice his unmade bed in the corner of a small room, metal filings littering the floor. The picture of the Indian ‘textile factory’ is particularly charming if only because the children are care-free and child-like, apparently playing – weaving in and out – amongst the adults. The frame is split in two, a little boy peers to the open upper level (a supporting adult hand on his back) where a boy and girl seem to be hiding from him. The adults in the other photographs tend to be anonymous, passive and apparently undifferentiated from the children. Or tourists. A facelss man in chequered shirt and newly shined boots; a sleazy sex tourist looking away nonchalantly as he fondles the leg of a Thai girl with her back to us.

A Mexican boy in sports cap and trainers sits engrossed in a magazine. He is sat at his stall full to bursting with ‘adult’ titles, from the comical ‘Busty’ to the more familiar Playboy. ‘In many cities boys sell newspapers’ says Parker menacingly, incongruously. They also work on market stalls, in bicycle repair shops and garages. Oh, and child prostitution and trafficking are rife too. But surely drawing a moral equivalence between sexual exploitation and a paper round is absurd? The wistful pose of a Mexican girl selling bags a few pages later suddenly seems straight out of a glamour shoot; and the young boys hoisting nets are, in a quiet moment, seemingly reclined suggestively.

The mind plays tricks. But it is Parker’s commentary, and his eye for the ambiguous, that colours the interpretation – that encourages the viewer to see victims of abuse where more often than not they’re just children working too hard, too young and for far too little. But they aren’t alone. The young Indonesian garbage picker (like his contemporary in Nicaragua) has a basket on his back, but then you notice there are a sea of baskets attached to the adult backs stretching out behind him. Everyone pitches in not because the adults mistreat the children but because their shared experience of poverty dictates it.

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