Esteemed thinker: Jacob A. Riis

Jacob riis “A picture speaks a thousand words…” An adage that we have all heard, all recognize by its metaphoric content; but I wonder… is this the rallying cry of the photojournalist? For when we are witness to that “split second” moment caught on film, it is forever documented. With the camera being in our hands as early as the 1800s, we are able to step back in time and literally spy upon our days-gone-by; often its effect has the ability to embellish or diminish our perception of the past.

Early photographers like their counterpart the early journalists and writers often became the champions of the disenfranchised; describing and photographing parts of society that were often ignored, brushed aside, or even invisible to the public who were not in immediate contact of those less fortunate.

And so, today’s blog introduces the esteemed thinker: Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914) social reformer, writer, and photographer that brought to light the plight of the city’s poor. Riis himself was an immigrant that arrived in New York City in 1870 from Denmark. Having taken many different jobs, he became a police report and began to document the slums of New York City. Through his writings and photography he became a change agent, fighting for reform, for better housing, sanitation, care for the poor, and especially the children. He believed that all men who were moral citizens, regardless of economic status, should have an opportunity to better their lives and break free from poverty. His book of 1890, How the Other Half Lives created public uproar and intitiated a movement for change.

huddle riis From one of his many works titled, The Battle of the Slum, we cannot help but be moved by his firsthand account. Here is Mr. Riis in his own words….

“… The slum is as old as civilization. Civilization implies a race, to get ahead. In a race there are usually some who for one cause or another cannot keep up, or are thrust out from among their fellows. They fall behind, and when they have been left far in the rear they lose hope and ambition, and give up. Thenceforward, if left to their own resources, they are the victims, not the masters, of their environment; and it is a bad master. They drag one another always farther down. The bad environment becomes the heredity of the next generation. Then, given the crowd, you have the slum ready-made…”

“…High rents, slack work, and low wages go hand in hand in the tenements as promoters of overcrowding. The rent is always one fourth of the family income, often more. The fierce competition for a bare living cuts down wages; and when loss of work is added, the only thing left is to take in lodgers to meet the landlord’s claim. The midnight visit of the sanitary policeman discloses a state of affairs against which he feels himself helpless. He has his standard: 400 cubic feet of air space for each adult sleeper, 200 for a child. That in itself is a concession to the practical necessities of the case. The original demand was for 600 feet. But of 28,000 and odd tenants canvassed in New York, in the slumming investigation prosecuted by the general government in 1894, 17,047 were found to have less than 400 feet, and of these 5526 slept in unventilated rooms with no windows. No more such rooms have been added since; but there has come that which is worse…”

housing riis

3 thoughts on “Esteemed thinker: Jacob A. Riis

  1. Although one may not consider the work of the Paparazzo, Photojournalism in the classic sense, the dynamics are becoming practically identical. It is evident that the latter is evolving into the former.
    Many publications are willing to purchase work from independent iReporters who are more than willing to sneak across borders into volatile hotspots to “Grab” provocative, publishable, material.

    The reason for this huge trend, is that publications are not obliged to pay insurance for the iReporter. If the independent’s well being is compromised, either through loss of equipment, injury or even death. The culpability of the publication is lessened dramatically, as opposed to a staffer incurring any such losses. Many news organizations are cutting their staff in large numbers and relying heavily on independents. This took momentum in the 1990’s with Rwanda, and more recently Libya and Syria.

    The “Old Guard” of Paparazzo guys, refer to the iReporter as “Glory Boys”.
    The nature of my former work, was simply about money. Paparazzos are anonymous, and are hardly ever credited for an image. We sold our work to an agency, who then peddled it wherever they wished. I have seen my images in “supermarket checkout magazines”, whose copy line completely misconstrued what I believed I caught in the viewfinder, Yet, I knew this going in and accepted it.

    What motivates the iReporter? I don’t know. I have learned that a photographer should assume nothing, (but that’s a whole other debate). What I have gained philosophically from 15 years of running the streets of twenty plus countries, hunting “The money shot”, is that the noble work of Riis, Cartier-Bresson, Lange amongst many others is a dying art. Where their work incited social commentary and social change, It’s the “Aha, I told you so!” mentality that sells nowadays. It’s so much more agenda driven.
    And many young, inexperienced, independents are, grabbing a Video capable DSLR, a shotgun Mic and a couple of fast zooms, throwing caution to the wind and losing their lives in the process.
    We are always going to want the story to be told. However, we should always be mindful of the source of information and it’s motivation for publishing it.
    My .25 cents.

    • Rohan, thanks for sharing the Paparazzo side…it is wonderful to know someone else that also looks at Cartier-Bresson, Riss, Stiglitz, Weston…and so many other greats… as “noble work”! Bravo!

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