In the 1840s, the “social question” referred to an awareness among intellectuals (writers, scientists and politicians) of the increasing significance of the role of workers, and their vulnerability as a group. This growing social class, created by the Industrial Revolution in the Western world, was faced with a number of challenges: frequently appalling working conditions, insanitary housing, the absence of social protection (in the event of illness, accidents, unemployment, or in old age), and political impotence. This expression, coined by the élite, suggests that growing social, economic and political inequality could threaten the social contract and potentially give rise to serious conflict. Diverse responses to resolve this situation were proposed, including liberalism, socialism, paternalism, solidarism, trade unionism, and reformism.
Radical changes in the nature of employment, insecurity in the world of work, excessive economic liberalism, the dissemination of anarchist ideas among the working class – in the 19th century, the “social question” was a source of deep concern to European and North American élites. The agenda of photographers who addressed this subject, and whose images are presented in our collections, are extremely diverse, as is their output. What is the connection between preparatory studies produced in the studio for potential use by artists, genre scenes disseminated in visiting card format, choreographed scenes with artistic pretentions for publication in luxury magazines, commissions documenting major public works projects, and investigations aimed at informing public opinion and the authorities? They could perhaps be motivated by compassion for the ordinary men and women whose plight they were helping to reveal.
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