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Jacob Riis.

The Photo-Journalist who changed the live of thousands of people in New York.

Today, I would like to talk about this great Danish photographer who, thanks to his job, managed to change many things in the time he lived, especially those related to improving the living conditions of the poorest neighbourhoods in New York; a photographer who remains a social reference worldwide.

Jacob Riis was born in Ribe, a small town in Denmark, in 1849. He was the third of 14 siblings. Despite the fact that his father was a schoolmaster, the family had many children to support over the years. Tragically, many of Jacob’s brothers and sisters died at a young age from accidents and disease, the latter being linked to unclean drinking water and tuberculosis. Only four of them lived passed 20 years, one of which was Jacob.

In 1870, when Jacob turned 21, he decided to emigrate to the United States seeking a better life. Up to 1890, a third of Denmark’s population emigrated to find better opportunities, mostly in America (1).

He arrived in New York at a time of great social upheaval. The city received millions of migrants from all over Europe: Germans, Italians, Czechs, Irish, Scots, Chinese, Danes, Jews…most of them stayed to live there, making the city grow by 25%, one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

Many of these immigrants lived in overcrowded neighbours such as Lower East Side of Manhattan, one of the oldest neighbours in New York, but also one of the most unhealthy and dangerous at that time.

As an immigrant, Jacob Riis had to work as a farmhand, bricklayer, iron worker, carpenter, salesman…experiencing poverty and the worst aspects associated with industrialisation and the excesses derived from capitalism: labor exploitation. He had to sleep on the streets and many times share a room with other people. According to Riis, at this time men and women had to pay 5 cents a spot to sleep because there were not enough houses for everyone and many of them had to sleep on the floor.

After years of hard work, He found a job as a police reporter at New York Tribune. It was here where he begins to carry out a series of investigations and photographs about the living conditions of the slums in the Lower East Side, which led him to think about the need for reform of these neighbourhoods (2).

Children at Mullen’s Alley

In 1888 He left the Tribune to work at the New York Evening Sun where he continued his work documenting the living conditions of the poorest. Riis was the first photographer to use the magnesium flash as an alternative source of lighting and be able to portray the nightlife of the suburbs, and also the interior of homes, exposing for first time in history the misery in which thousands of families and workers lived, thus becoming one of the pioneers of photojournalism.

Carrying his journalistic investigative job, Riis had a professional and friendly relationship with Theodore Roosevelt, who at the time was Chief of Commissions of the New York Police Station. They worked together hand by hand. Roosevelt later remarked: “Jacob Riis, whom I am tempted to call the best American I ever Knew…”

Lodgers in Bayard Street Tenement. Five cents a spot. 1889

Homeless Children sleeping in the street.

Sweat shop. Children at work

Women’s lodging room in Eldridge Street Police Station

The city had no shelter system at that time and Police stations were one of the only places in New York where the destitute could find lodging (3).

Riis used his photographs to make his first book “How the Other Half Lives. Studies Among the Tenement of New York” that was published in 1890. He talks about the labor exploitation to which workers are plunged, as well as child exploitation, since at this time many children worked in the textile industry or selling newspapers. He also talks about low childhood schooling, the lack of green areas in the city and playgrounds where children can grow up healthy.

This first book was a best seller. Reviews were generally good. It was the first use Halftone photographic reproductions in a book and Jacob Riis travelled around the country promoting his book, seeking the necessary support to change the laws to improve the living conditions of people in New York. In every single exhibition he showed his photographs using the magic lantern, the most primitive slide systemwe know to illustrate his speeches, arguing that “it is the environment that makes the person and anyone can become a good citizen given the chance”.

An Italian Home under a Dump. 1892

Riis was able to influence public opinion thanks to his tireless work doing talks, writing articles in the newspapers and magazines, and writing books. Riis wished to force reforms on New York Police which operated poor houses, building codes, child labour and city services (4).

In 1891 He wrote an article called “Some things We Drink” for the New York Evening Sun denouncing the condition of the New York’s water supply, warning about the possibility that there would be a cholera epidemic in the city. As a recognised journalist the authorities followed his advice, taking the necessary measures preventing the pandemic.

In 1892 he published another book focused on the immigrant children called ‘The Children of the Poor’. To write this book, he worked with a friend from the Department of Health, who helped him by giving the statistical information on public health, education, and crime. He argued that teaching immigrant children about America democracy would help them to become productive citizens.

Children’s Playground in Poverty Gap

Riis collaborated with the Daughters of the King, an Episcopal church women's organisation, to establish in 1890 a charity house that offered sewing classes, mothers' clubs, medical care, and summer camps. In 1901, the organisation was renamed “Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement House” in honour of its founder and expanded the scope of activities to include athletics, citizenship classes, and theatre. And the most surprising thing is that until now this house continues to exist (5).

The work of this great photojournalist had a great impact on the social policy of this time. He got that the authorities not only managed to eradicate the unhealthy houses of New York, they also build parks for the enjoyment of the citizens. When Theodor Roosevelt became president of the United States in 1901 he made all these social changes reach not only throughout New York but also throughout the country.

Mulberry Bend

Mulberry Bend was one of the worst parts of the Five Points, with multiple back alleyways such as Bandit's Roost, Bottle Alley and Ragpickers Row.

In 1897, due in part to the efforts of Danish photojournalist Jacob Riis, Mulberry Bend was demolished and turned into Mulberry Bend Park. The urban green space was designed by Calvert Vaux.

In 1911 it was renamed Columbus Park (6). And here it is how the park looks like now.

I hope you liked this magnificent story, but above all I hope that it has served as an inspiration to continue working, and keep in mind that all the great changes of humanity have been made by people like us, with patience and hard work. Do not stop taking photos and denouncing injustices wherever they are ...


Gisella Burga

English correction: Rebecca Brown.


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