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Every time he crouched, crawled, and clawed his way through

the dank tenements of late 19th-century New York City, Jacob Riis was

waging war.1 Using Blitzlichtpulver (flashlight powder) as a weapon in

his “battle with the slum,” Riis was able to convincingly capture and

photographically spread the plagues of darkness, scourge, and poverty

that attacked New York City’s most vulnerable tenants. 2 For Riis, it

was far too easy for financially secure 19th-century Americans to

compartmentalize and not openly admit that by capitalizing on the

lives and pocketbooks of struggling immigrants and native residents,

they themselves were actually no different than a person who slowly

tortures and then kills.3 As someone who had transitioned from poor

immigrant to comfortable capitalist himself, Riis was personally

frustrated by America’s “posed” refusal to admit that its economic

progress was paid for using the blood of the poor.4 Throughout his

journalistic battle for the dissemination of social truth, Jacob Riis let

searing tenement images cut through his oft-overlooked statistics and

Riis, How the Other Half Lives (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996), p. 24. “Riis succeeded in capturing
the look of action in his battle with the slum. Describing himself as “a kind of war correspondent” engaged
in “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. The
combination of flashlight powder, detective camera, and gelatin dry plate provided Riis with the tools he
needed 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’s
transformation 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 living
in 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 the
social conditions like it had transformed the economy.

facts like bullets that attacked the complacent sensibilities of middle

class America.

As a new member of the American middle class, Riis continued to

be influenced by his previous experience with poverty-driven violence

and degradation in America even though his loyalties remained middle

class. Fearing that the “deleterious influence of the slum

environment” would undermine national morality if it existed

unopposed, Riis felt called to photograph slum debasement so as to

galvanize other middle class members about tenement reform.5

Having himself been struck by the stark visual contrast between the

“low, old-looking houses in front and the towering tenements in the

back-yards,” Riis understood the power of images.6 They introduced

the human element. It cannot be overlooked that every, single

photograph Riis selected for How the Other Half Lives included human

subjects. Even his depiction of the “Tramp’s Nest in Ludlow Street”

featured a bundled homeless man balled up on the nest floor.7

Perhaps Riis’s most striking use of photography as a humanizing

and emotionally-charged weapon occurs in the two jarring images of

Street Arabs in Sleeping Quarters.8 Riis had already described in so

many words how the young New York City orphans were “overlooked

by the “Society” … [and left to] dirt and the hardships of the street,”

Riis, p. 20.
Riis, p. 86.
Riis, p. 130.
Riis, p. 192.

but it is not until one sees the actual conditions in these two photos

that the hardships of those poor children become emotionally

relatable. Whereas Riis’s readers could easily skim over his “posed”

text, he understood that the sight of rag-clad, young boys, grimacing

from discomfort and huddled together over heated grates would serve

as a shot of reality into the collective gut of all middle class Americans.

The faces of the children cannot “pose”; their pain is truthfully evident.

Images cannot be deflected; they pierce the deepest hearts.

Consequently, Riis incorporated these overtly “un-posed” photographs

so as to emotionally draft viewers into the war on the slum.

Ironically, Riis’s own war-like prejudices against the poor become

quite evident in his text despite the corresponding, sympathetic

photos. Unafraid of writing about his personal distaste for cohorts like

the poor Irishman and Jew, Riis also captured photographs that

reflected his more compassionate, religiously-inclined side. For

instance, Riis was consistently demeaning toward those impoverished

sectors that he believed did not take advantage of American

opportunities as he had done. He even ventured so far as to call the

Street Arabs “weasels … with [their] grimy fist[s] raised against

society.”9 Alone, this type of textual descriptor would likely have

birthed immense readership resentment toward Street Arab children;

however, the close juxtaposition of photos of the Street Arabs cuddled

Riis, p. 188.

together over a street grate validates the Street Arabs’ frustration with

a society that largely ignored their plight.

In a sense, the dichotomy of Riis (part former struggler, part

loyalist to his new middle class American ideology) manifests itself in

his use of both text and photographs. In order to best express his own

paradoxical beliefs—that many poor groups worsen their own plight,

but that they should also be saved from detrimental tenement

environments—Riis employs both objective textual evidence and

emotional photography to sound his battlecry. Only with the combined

effect of these two unguarded, emotionally different mediums does

Riis succeed at galvanizing the middle class troops to battle against

the pictured injustices of mankind within the most successful nation in

the world.

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