Riis Essay, Research Paper
The appalling conditions of New York City?s immigrants were disclosed by Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives. Being an immigrant from Denmark himself, Riis, felt it was his duty to present others the disturbing life that many immigrants endured, including children. Riis, a photographer, was able to portray the slums as no other person had been able to do before. He brought to light the crime, disease, and hopelessness of the tenements. His book and photographs led to legislation throughout New York State. Due to the hopelessness of the immigrants and children, along with his obligation to the truth, Riis felt social reforms were needed in the slums of New York.
There were two groups Jacob Riis documented extensively. He and the rest of American society in the late 1800?s felt that children were the innocent victims of poverty. How the Other Half Lives depicts the situation of the poor children as being out of their control. Riis spoke kindly of their struggles throughout the documentary, and fought on their behalf for reforms. The other group discussed by Riis were the immigrants. There were two types of immigrants that came to America in the late 1800?s for new opportunities. Those who had the same physical characteristics as the people who were already here and those who did not. Northern and Western immigrants looked and talked similar to people in the United States. African Americans, Jews, Italians, and the Chinese were physically different. Americans felt threatened by those who were not like themselves. They thought that they were just over here to make money and then go back home. However, Americans felt less threatened by those who looked and talked similar. Riis treated northern and western European immigrants with respect, while he was not so kind to other immigrants. He constantly ridiculed and dehumanized those immigrants that lived in the tenements. Fortunately, there were times when he showed compassion and spoke of them kindly. However, Riis did treat immigrants and children differently in his text and photographs.
Jacob Riis documented the inhumane living and working conditions of children in the slums of New York. How the Other Half Lives text offers its readers a chance to read about the horror which young kids face each and every day. Riis wrote that he received a summons, ??to a Mott Street tenement in which lay a child dying from some unknown disease?(p.169). This was just an everyday occurrence in the slums. Photographs added to the audiences dismay by putting a graphic picture with the text. A perfect example is of the photograph entitled ?In Sweat Shop?(p.32). Here a boy at the young age of twelve is working in a sweat shop. It is easy to turn your head aside to text, but photographs documented the problems facing children in the tenements quite accurately. Contrarily, Riis approaches issues around immigrants unprofessionally in the text of How the Other Half Lives. His stereotypical remarks make it hard for readers to understand if he is trying to help the poor or make fun of them. When referring to how fast immigrants pick up English, Riis remarks that, ??the Italian learns slowly, if at all?(p.92). Riis, however, does have compassion in his text for the immigrants. A good example of this is when he says that the, ??Italian immigrant has his redeeming traits?(p.95). Riis?s photographs often depicted immigrants as poor people living in filth. The photograph entitled ?The Bend? is a good representation of Riis?s portrayal of immigrants in pictures. This photograph shows the terrible living conditions of the immigrants. Despite his unequal treatment of children and immigrants, Riis, fought for the rights of the poor.
Jacob Riis makes his readers determine whether or not they, ??pity the plight of the poor or fear their spread?(p.33). Upper classes still dominated society in the late 1800?s. The rich believed they were rich because they were moral, and the poor were poor because they were not. However, Riis begged to differ with the status quo. He believed that, ?To a certain extent, we are all creatures of the conditions that surround us, physically and morally?(p.234). How the Other Half Lives documented through word and image the lives of the poor who lived in New York?s slums. In order for reforms to take place Riis had to cater to his readers. He knew people did not like to see or read about poor children, so he exploited their hardships in his documentary. Riis and America believed the children were the innocent victims. He also knew his audience feared immigrants, so he accompanied his readers by depicting them by their stereotypes. His brutal, uncensored fashion left the readers feeling sympathy for people who lived in the tenements. Riis asked the question and the city answered it. The haves started helping the have-nots, and social reform was underway.
Jacob Riis immigrated to the United States in 1870 from Denmark. After several years of extreme poverty he finally found employment as a police reporter for the New York tribune in 1877. In the 1880?s his work shifted towards reform. His main goal was to better the living conditions for the thousands of immigrants flocking to New York in search of new opportunities. In his documentary entitled, How the Other Half Lives, Riis brought the shocking face of poverty to his readers with his photographs and stirring texts. Lecturers tried to bring attention to the problems in the slums before photographs, but people disregarded them. However, Riis?s pictures were able to show, ??the filth, the disorder, and the darkness of urban poverty as malevolent forces responsible for America?s decay??(p.41) He felt that, ??if unchallenged, these forces of evil would lead to the nation?s collapse?(p.41). His call for reform captivated his audience. A sense of social responsibility engulfed the people of New York after they read How the Other Half Lives. Much needed reforms were established, and the road to recovery for the people and tenements had begun. By 1900, city water was purified, cases of yellow fever, small pox, and cholera were reduced, and efforts to establish child labor laws were underway. Riis later became an important figure in the history of documentary photography, and is considered one of the great reformers of his time.
?To a certain extent, we are all the creatures of the conditions that surround us, physically and morally,?(p.234) Riis explained. However, his readers may lose that point while coming across numerous racial and ethnic stereotypes in How the Other Half Lives. In the late 1800?s, racial and ethnic biases was the norm in the United States. These ideas were born out of the fear that immigrants were going to take away the livelihood of American citizens. White men thought immigrants were going to steal jobs, women, and other aspects of their lives. Riis just helped the problem by reaffirming the negative connotations of recent additions to the American population. He says the Jews are tight with their cash, and that, ?Money is their God?(p.130). He considers Italians being unintelligent, while, ??learn slowly, if at all?(p.92). Riis believes the Chinese are mysterious, and, ?Stealth and secretiveness are much a part of the Chinaman in New York as the cat-like tread of his felt shoes?(p.121). African Americans act like children because they look at, ??the sunny side of life and enjoy it?(p.159). There are vast amounts of racial and ethnic slander throughout the documentary. Riis may have been trying to gain interest with his readers, but he just heightened the tensions between the groups.
Truth is what everyone seeks, however, only a hand full can find it and share it with the world. Jacob Riis is one of those few because of his shocking pictures of the New York tenements in the late 1800?s, which brought about social reforms. No matter what the outcome was, all he wanted to come from his pictures was the, ?truth?(p.60). Documentary photography was the dominant mechanism for social change in a culture desperately needing to understand itself and mobilize its moral and political drive to correct the problems taking place. Riis used halftone reproduction techniques to create a documentary that disclosed the struggles of the people living in the tenements. His portrayal of the hardships in the slums was the first of its kind. Riis could present mass audiences with the horror of what life was like for those living in the tenements through the images he caught in his photographs. He captured these images with the help of the recently developed flash powder, which allowed him to take his camera into the darkest of the slums. After collecting his photographs for a few years, Riis turned them into a book, How the Other Half Lives. These harsh and moving flash photographs, along with his sharp text helped rid New York of some of its worst slums. Riis found his motivation due to a responsibility to the facts, and a belief that average Americans would answer humanely if shown the effects of injustices. He used his newly found passion to maintain the link between photography and social reform. His pictures began the reform movement in New York because Riis would not let the truth escape him or his photographs.
Jacob Riis?s How the Other Half Lives aroused many to notice the problems of the slums and have created numerous forms of aid. Riis wanted the public to see what was going on in the tenements. Therefore, by taking photographs and writing about his experiences with the slums, Riis allowed his audience to acknowledge the fact that poverty was present and within their grasp. Social reform swept throughout New York State, and the enacted legislation has improved conditions in the slums.