The photographic tool

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The photographic instrument in a camera has the capacity to revolutionize and reform general awareness. The camera can be used to combat a wide range of social ills. Many of the current reform protest movements are fueled by social media videos and photos. The recordings and photographs are widely distributed, resulting in widespread support for the protesters. This paper will look at the role of Jacob Riis's works in social movements, specifically his book, How the Other Half Lives, which will be explained and studied.At the end of 18th century, there was minimal knowledge among the middle and the upper class on the poor immigrant’s conditions living in the ghettos. The country later transformed to a superpower in the industrial development after the civil war with the Asians, unskilled South Americans, Jewish people and the Eastern European settling in the United States. Later in the 1880’s, some few immigrants arrived in the USA leading to rising in the population of New York by 25%. The growth in the total population resulted in the extreme tenement problem. After the end of the civil war, some of the slum dwellers died in the fight while others had become wealthy and they moved out. Before the book’s publication, the slums were seen as problematic to the people. Socialist believed at the time that the problem would be fixed by the wealth redistribution and public ownership. The organization later took part in trying to seek the problems encountered by the slum dwellers. By 1985, the New York population had risen to one million with the tenement, which was colloquially known as the poor’s housing was about 15309. Dumbbell tenement layout was first used after the 1867 Tenement House Act. The tenement style structured to ensure there air ventilation, natural air as well as fire safety regulation. The landlords of the tenements did very little in ensuring that the conditions around here were improved. The superintendent of the building said that the owners supported the new statute enforcement because hardwood could burn slowly (Carney 30).

Jacob Riis is one individual, who has effectively contributed to the work. He left to New York in 1870, but due to lack of work, he started residing in New York’s lower east part. Riis later became the reporter in the police department and committed himself to Christianity. He then became a pastime photographer in the slums, which still conducting a police reporter role. He wrote very many books which highlighted the conditions in New Yolk’s slums, which include The Battle with the Slums (1902), How the Other Half Lives (1890), Children of the Tenements (1903), and others.

In January 1888, Riis brought a camera, which they used in gathering the images of the life in the New York slums. On February 1888, he took the viewers on a journey by the utilization of the projection screened to show the other life in slums in New York. He continued with his work in the New York churches which were reviewed in different magazines and newspapers. Riis work explained the life in the slums as well as how the sweatshops paid the tenements some few coins in a day’s work.

He talked about the failure of the tenement housing, which he attributed to the wealthier people’s neglect and greed. He exposed the conditions in the habitat, which comprise the drunkenness, high crime rate, lack of proper home and reckless behaviors. Riis identifies the Protestant’s vices and virtues, which include the uncleanliness, idleness, intemperance and disorders, diseases, loss of modesty among women, miserable conditions of living and others.

He later convinces the newspaper reader that the society was not such by choice and needed to be fixed. Their conditions were societal imposed: unhygienic or dangerous. He increased sympathy for the slum dwellers. The work came into publication in the 1890’s, which gained popularity and support from very famous people, such as Roosevelt, coming to its help. His work has made a very significant lasting impact in improving the conditions of the working population, improving the tenement ventilation through the restriction in building heights, improving ventilation, the fire safety regulations and the room space expansion.

How the Other Half Lives Influence on the Society

Jacob Riis uses the tool of photojournalism actually in his book How the Other Half Lives (1890). He shares the nasty experiences of the migrants in the slums in the 1880’s. In the book, Riis exposes the overcrowding, disease, exploitation, and filth, which is affecting the slum dwellers. The pioneering work done by Riis helps push tenement reform to the front of New York’s political agenda and prompts then Police Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, to close down the police-run poor houses.

Different organizations and people have different perspectives towards the slums before Riis publishes his book. Organizations inclusive of the women’s Christian temperate and the American Red Cross are involved in helping the slum dwellers in various aspects, but their efforts are locally based rather than national. Socialists believe that the slum problem should be resolved by public ownership and wealth redistribution while many reformers believe a wider wealth distribution will help solve slum problems. Riis uses Magnesium flash powder to capture the dingy and dark conditions of the slums which he documents in his book. This helps the general public and the authorities to get a better picture of what is happening in slums (Riis 54).

In Riis’ other works the out of Mulberry Street, the battle with the slums and Children of the Tenements, he documents further the slum challenges. Use of photography to express the suffering of the people is well spelled in all these works. His works are highly publicized and published in newspaper articles.

The New York slums living standards and tenements’ sweatshops, which pay their employees some little coins in a day and the number of children working in factories, as newsboys and garment workers are well explained by the How the Other Half Lives. Due to neglect as well as greed from wealthy people the system of tenement housing has failed. In every chapter, Riis uses his photographs and works in exposing the poor conditions undergone by slum dwellers in a way that speaks directly to the people’s hearts. Riis keeps the hypothesis that the state, which surrounds the poor, is the reason for their poverty. Riis ends the book on a plan of how to terminate the poverty in the slums. He states that the individuals in the upper class will financially benefit from the scheme and assures that it's achievable.

Many newspapers in the country lauded the Riis’ content in his book referring it to be powerful. There are many enthusiastic reviews on the newsletter which are Christian based. The newsletter supports Riis’ argument on the poverty’s moral issues. One of the common books is The Intelligencer in Christianity, which argues that such a book can hasten the day of reforms due to their exposure on the system’s great evils. The book made its comments after reviewing the first edition. They find Riis work relevant and applicable in their cities, they call for more common reforms in their cities.

The Riis views resulted in numerous changes. There was the establishment of the Tenement House Committee in 1894. In 1895, the rear tenements were outlawed by the publishing of the Act on the tenement housing in New York, the first official supplement document, which described the photographs of the tenement housing (Chin and Wong Chin Huat 56). The act of 1901 of the New York tenement house brought about the reforms due to its requirement in increasing the fire safety regulations in the tenement house. Also, the act restrictions are inclusive of the improvements in the in the living quarters pertaining the light amount which is received (Riis 56).

In the modern world, photojournalism is playing a great role in sensitizing people on what is happening around the globe. In Malaysia, electoral reforms are documented in pictures and circulated on social media. The vices, which take place during the changes, such as police brutality are broadcasted for the whole world to see (Chin and Wong Chin Huat 58). Human rights groups swing into action accusing the government of contempt for fundamental freedoms. It strengthens the protests even further; the photos circulated evoke people's emotions making thousands to protest. It also necessitates the government to grant the needs of its population. With the rebellions and upheavals in the world today, there are circulations of photographs if anything happens. The pictures are at times traumatizing or disturbing, hence necessary to regulate the flow of the visual images in the social.

Use of photojournalism for protest and reform is much pronounced in France when workers in France are protesting against President Francois Hollande’s new labor reforms. Photography is used as a tool to show the world and the France authorities, how much agitated the workers are with the new reforms. The actions of the French people bring them into conflict with police, often provoking violent clashes.

The same is seen in the USA when people are protesting and putting claims of racism against President Donald J. Trump. Photojournalism is used to paint a clearer picture of the protests forcing the president to drop some of his strict regulations (Huber 53).

In other nations, such as China, photojournalism has been used to expose the pollution rate in the country by the use of photographs of sewage flowing to Anyang River, chemical waste disposal, a large amount of chemical waste water discharged into the rivers. The photojournalism pushed towards the enactment of environmental laws in reducing pollution effect in the nation.


The use of Photojournalism by Riis triggers reforms nationally; photography is a great contributor to Riis activism in painting the real picture of the slum life. The same is replicated in the common scenarios, where photographs are used to appeal to the emotions of citizens and those in power; this proves the fact that photojournalism is a great tool in activism. Also, it is an essential tool while pushing for reforms. Photography has been using in various dimensions in eradicating corruption, injustices, pollution as well as poverty. Hence, it should be embraced to ensure that all activities are in order

Works Cited

Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives.Martino Fine Books, 2015.

Chin, James, and Wong Chin Huat. “Malaysia’s electoral upheaval.” Journal of Democracy, vol. 20, no.3, 2009, pp. 71-85.

Huber, Lindsay Perez. “Make America Great again: Donald Trump, Racist Nativism and the Virulent Adherence to White SupremecyAmid US Demographic Change.” Charleston Law Review, no. 10, 2016, pp. 215.

Carney, Mary Lawson. “How the other half lives.” Nursing management, vol. 46, no. 7, 2015, pp. 30-35.

May 10, 2023
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