How The Other Half Lives

May 2, 2008

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It can often be a struggle to come to terms with something you admire produced by someone you don’t. This is my problem with the work of Jacob Riis.

Embracing the newly developed field of flash photography, Riis documented the slums of New York in the 1880’s in a series of both candid and posed images which were published in a book he wrote called How The Other Half Lives.

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The photographs and drawings based on photographs reveal the appalling conditions that the poor, particularly the immigrant poor, lived in in the USA in the 19th century.

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Riis called for better housing and sanitation, but interestingly thought that this should be funded by private benefactors rather than governments. In fact he encouraged the then Commissioner of Police – Teddy Roosevelt – to shut down the publicly run poor-houses. Perhaps improving them might have been more appropriate!

Despite his worthy place in the history of photojournalism and his clear concern for the plight of the poor, he also displayed some very unpleasant racist views in his writing. Consider the following quotes.

Of the Jews –  “Money is their God. Life itself is of little value compared with even the leanest bank account.”  

Of the Chinese – “…the Chinese are in no sense a desirable element of the population, that they serve no useful purpose here …”

Of the Italians – “With all his conspicuous faults, the swarthy Italian immigrant has his redeeming traits.”

And so on.

Yes they were the prevailing views of some people at the time, but nonetheless that attitude does lessen my regard for him.

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