The american dream. It's hard not to think of the Statue of Liberty, in the New York harbour, greeting immigrants that have left their far-away homes, in search of a better life in the New World. They came from every walk of life. Many arrived still children on their parents' lap, looking around them at the strange and amazing environment of the big city. Early on, they started working and searching, deep down, for a chance in the land of opportunities.
More out of need than out of ambition, from a young age, future Americans gave their effort and youth to their nation, at a time when children were seen as small adults and child labour was considered a priviledge, America has grown as much thanks to its immigrants as thanks to its children, who became adults too soon and had no time to play.
I remember the raw images of little boys in Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time In America", the difficulties endured by newly arrived families, portrayed with irony in Charles Chaplin in "The Immigrant", just to name a few movies. But I also recall photographs by Alfred Stieglitz or Dorothea Lange, two well-known names. And the lesser-known Lewis Hine, who dedicated part of his career as a photographer to the documentation of child labour in the United States.
Between 1908 and 1912, Hine photographed what he called the faces of lost youth: children of various ages, some only five years old, performing grown-up jobs. And they were not at all light jobs. We can find little boys and girls working in factories, stores, fishing boats, mines, from dawn to dusk, sometimes for over twelve hours... The photographer got to know each and everyone of them: Michael, Manuel, Camille, Pierce. He got to know everyone's story. They posed for him, sometimes with naive pride, as if they thought themselves grown-up, but with all the sadness in the world mirrored in their eyes. The images are piercing; you can't help feel disturbed looking at them.
Some of these children didn't make it past childhood. Others managed to survive, grew up and prospered, diving deep inside the drunkenness of the american dream.
Theme song from Once Upon A Time in America - Ennio Morricone (excerpt)
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