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