Interview: David Parker, bringing child labor to light


David Parker is a physician, based at the Park Nicollet Clinic, who for over fifteen years has been using photography to shed light on global public health concerns. His newly-published book Before Their Time documents children working in grim conditions in countries from India to Turkey to Nicaragua. (See photos.) I recently met with David Parker, in Minneapolis, to discuss his work.

How did you get started photographing working children?
I had been studying youth labor in Minnesota—youth labor, that is, as distinguished from child labor, which for the most part we don’t have here. I became curious about investigating children’s working conditions in the rest of the world, and I thought I’d take my camera.

What are the challenges of taking these photographs?
Number one, jet lag! Well, unless you go south instead of east or west. Anyway, one challenge is representing the diversity of the problem. First, there’s the diversity in terms of the country, the race, the ethnicity, and the heritage of those engaged—so that child labor doesn’t seem to be a problem of any one group or people rather than the global problem it actually is. Then there’s the diversity of the work itself. I want to avoid becoming repetitive, so that child labor looks like the ongoing problem it is. I don’t want to become too redundant in any particular work or exhibit. Brick factories, for example, are always interesting visually because they’re gritty and dusty, but they’re only a small part of child labor.

Is it a challenge to gain access to these settings?
With some industries, the more you know, the more difficult it’s going to be to gain access. There are some industries that have come under particular scrutiny—the garment industry, the carpet industry—and trying to photograph work in those industries might be difficult, but nobody particularly cares about the people who work in garbage dumps. The more an industry is engaged in international trade, the harder it is to photograph that industry. So if Kathie Lee Gifford or Nike is involved, they may not be particularly open to someone coming in. Agriculture is an exception, because it’s so far removed from the consumer. It’s hard to track food back to its source. Cotton cloth, for example, is seen as a manufactured product rather than an agricultural product because only the finished product is seen by the consumer. Agriculture is relatively immune to scrutiny.

Watch for Peter Rachleff’s review of Before Their Time in the TC Daily Planet.

How does your photography relate to your work as a physician?
Mostly I wind up photographing either industrial work or issues related to public health, and I largely consider myself a public health, occupational medicine physician. So it’s really quite closely connected.

Has it been helpful to be based at Minnesota’s Park Nicollet Clinic?
Park Nicollet Clinic has been really good. They’ve been very supportive as an employer. The Twin Cities area has also been supportive, though venues for exhibitions have been difficult to come by. I’ve been able to show my photographs at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and at various churches around Minneapolis, as well as in smaller towns around Minnesota. What limits my ability to exhibit is the amount of time I have to devote to exhibitions, to finding new venues.

Among photographers, who are your inspirations?
Lewis Hine, Dorothea Lange, Eugene Smith…among more recent photographers, a friend here in town named Tom Arndt. Everything I do, I run past Tom in one way or another. He’s my final arbiter! Another person who was helpful was Ted Hartwell, who recently died. He was the senior curator of photography at the M.I.A. Sometimes it’s important to see how other people see my pictures—both what’s good about one picture in particular and how work is edited to fit as a whole.

Do you find any tension in presenting beautiful photographs in the service of bringing light to a terrible problem?
Well, I can’t imagine people looking at bad photographs—or being even remotely interested in them. I think it’s always the case, in some respects, with the documentation of events like this…I suppose it’s the same as writing a book. You might tell a beautiful story about a horrible thing, or a person might show an elegant picture about something that’s really sad. It gives it all the more strength as an image, and it conveys the event more powerfully. I think it also portrays the basic integrity of the children. A few years ago I did a talk at a meeting on the use of images in public health, and I said that being an epidemiologist by training, I tend to be somewhat trapped by numbers, trapped into believing that they tell the whole story. They do, but they’re boring. We live in an image-inundated society, so any images that are going to show something, that are going to be seen and well-received, have to compete with Budweiser ads. If they don’t, they’re tossed aside. In many respects, we’ve done a very poor job portraying public health. You may forget the importance of immunization, but you can’t forget images of people disabled by polio. We do a good job maintaining an infrastructure, but we don’t do a good job portraying public health problems. Numbers have their role, but so do images.

Jay Gabler ( writes on the arts. He is assistant editor of the TC Daily Planet.