Jacob Riis: How the Other Half Lives

In 1870, Danish 21-year-old Jacob Riis migrates from his European home to the land of opportunity, the United States, with $40 in his pocket. He came seeking employment as a carpenter. He quickly ran through the small amount of money had, and he eventually ended up jobless on the streets of New York, sleeping in different urban locations and surviving any bit of food or water he could salvage. However, he found work once again, and he began to write articles for the New York Sun describing life for the poor in the slums. As vividly as he wrote, the articles didn’t really have the impact that Riis desired. He wanted to motivate people to make a difference for these people living in inhumane conditions. He became a police reporter, and he began to take pictures of the living conditions. It was too dark to produce a quality photograph. Luckily for him, flashbulb photography was introduced at that time, and this solved the problem of the lack of light in the areas, and Riis decided this was the way to reach his goal.

Riis published his photographs along with How the Other Half Lives in 1890. These photos, taken by surprise, captured the horrific living conditions in the lower Eastern side of New York City: filthy, exhausted people with grim expressions, terrible sanitary conditions, and the tight spaces in which these people lived. In this particular photograph, children are resting outside on a staircase. This showed the awful conditions even children lived in, which included the child labor scandals. These homeless children are suffering, tired and unclean. This photograph along with many others brought this problem right in front of the eyes of middle and upper class New Yorkers. They tried to justify the “inevitable” treatment of these people by taking away their humanity and treating them as inferiors, but that was almost impossible for them to do as they stare into the eyes of helpless people suffering immensely. After Riis published them, many more people were for improving the conditions in the city’s slums; even people like Theodore Roosevelt offered to do anything they could to help.

Jacob Riis’s work sparked a change in attitudes and policy towards the poor in the slums. His touching and intimate photographs were the icing on the cake that compelled many to change these conditions. Organizations sprung up for this issue, and new legislation was passed. The contaminated tenements the poor lived in were torn down and remolded, and the school systems were reformed. For so many years, Americans could justify their treatment of other humans, such as blacks or Indians, because they dehumanized them. These photographs made them realize that they are people, too, and that the suffering they were enduring was a wrong they had the power to right. People saw that they had a moral obligation to the plight of the poor. Most importantly, he proposed achievable solutions to these problems. Jacob Riis was an important social reformer who played a large role in the Progressive Era, too, thanks to Roosevelt’s support of his work. His work was legendary, and he pictures will always be remembered for the better treatment he brought to the poor.

Photo credit: http://www.globalpovertyproject.com/blog/view/581

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One thought on “Jacob Riis: How the Other Half Lives

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