Every time he crouched, crawled, and clawed his way throughthe dank tenements of late 19
-century New York City, Jacob Riis waswaging war.
(flashlight powder) as a weapon inhis “battle with the slum,” Riis was able to convincingly capture andphotographically spread the plagues of darkness, scourge, and povertythat attacked New York City’s most vulnerable tenants.
For Riis, itwas far too easy for financially secure 19
-century Americans tocompartmentalize and not openly admit that by capitalizing on thelives and pocketbooks of struggling immigrants and native residents,they themselves were actually no different than a person who slowlytortures and then kills.
As someone who had transitioned from poorimmigrant to comfortable capitalist himself, Riis was personallyfrustrated by America’s “posed” refusal to admit that its economicprogress was paid for using the blood of the poor.
Throughout his journalistic battle for the dissemination of social truth, Jacob Riis letsearing tenement images cut through his oft-overlooked statistics and
How the Other Half Lives
(Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996), p. 24. “Riis succeeded in capturingthe look of action in his battle with the slum. Describing himself as “a kind of war correspondent” engagedin “campaigns,” “raids,” “battles,” “invasions,” and “wars” on several “fronts,” Riis took advantage of several new “weapons” to shoot and capture what he believed to be American civilization’s enemy. Thecombination of flashlight powder, detective camera, and gelatin dry plate provided Riis with the tools heneeded to uncover and record a dangerous world rarely seen, in a manner never imagined.”
Riis, p. 3.
Riis, p. 237.
Riis, p. 11-12. “Moving from poverty-stricken immigrant to middle-class American, Jacob Riis’stransformation mirrored the nation’s.” Because Riis identified himself as an individual manifestation of America’s economic transformation, he took it quite personally when some population cohorts were livingin conditions which depleted collective morality. Consequently, Riis hoped to reveal the true state of America through his writings and photographs so that the nation could work together to transform thesocial conditions like it had transformed the economy.