- I can explain the concept of a photograph as a historic document.
- I can use images to help support a claim.
- I can connect the use of images to creating social change.
Background: The Photography of Jacob Riis
Jacob Riis was a journalist and a photographer who documented the squalid living conditions in New York City. He took photographs of the poor and the tenements in which they lived to show the world “how the other half lives.” Riis pioneered flash photography. This allowed him to photograph the interior of people’s homes, and provided the public with a more intimate look at how the poor lived than ever before.
How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890) was Riis’s early publication of his photojournalism, documenting the horrible living conditions that many immigrants faced in the slums of New York City during the 1880s. Many say that these photos served as early examples of “muckraking” journalism, images exposed the slums to the middle and upper classes. These photographs explicitly showed how the poor lived.
In How the Other Half Lives, Riis explains that the greed and neglect of the wealthy allowed the tenement housing to exist. Riis went so far as to blame the crime and drunkenness found in tenement housing on the fact that the immigrants did not have access to proper housing. At the end of his book, Riis proposed a plan to help solve the problem, stating that not only would it financially benefit the wealthy to have a happy, healthy workforce, but that it was simply the moral thing to do.
Riis was intentional in his photography, and chose certain images to make a statement. Because of his use of flash photography, he was able to make photographs indoors in poorly lit conditions, whereas previously this would have been impossible. Because the use of flash was novel, oftentimes his subjects looked surprised or shocked.
Riis’s photographs in How the Other Half Lives also documented the daily life of sweatshop workers. He included photographs of children who would only be paid pennies a day, or sometimes not at all.
How the Other Half Lives led to improved living conditions, including tearing down some of the tenements, and even led to school reforms. The book led to a decade of improvement in the living conditions on New York City’s Lower East Side, including sewers, garbage collection, and indoor plumbing.
Begin the Activity
Distribute the images or project them. Ask students to describe everything they see in the photos. Have small groups “read” the photos as a descriptive text, take notes, and then share with the class. Next, have students closely study photos 3023, 3024, and 3026. Either independently or in groups, have students make a claim about the living conditions portrayed in the photos by using visual evidence they see.
Then have students support that claim with that evidence and other evidence from other photos. Have students consider the following questions:
Questions to Consider
- Based on these images, what was life like? Make a claim.
- What evidence do you see in the photos that will help support your claim?
- What aspects, themes, and details of the photographs do you think contributed to changing peoples’ opinions about these issues, and ultimately, to social change?
Have students answer the question: What is considered “the other half” today? What would they like to see “behind the scenes” or learn more about? This might be something as nearby as the homeless population in their hometown, or something as distant as the outer reaches of space. Students could engage in their own documentary photography project, and photograph a situation that needs attention in their own community (cleaner parks, better pedestrian crossings, areas for dogs to be off-leash, etc.). They could then use their own photos as evidence, or justification, for a community action project.