In 1870, 21-year-old Jacob Riis immigrated from his home in Denmark to bustling New York City. With only $40, a gold locket housing the hair of the girl he had left behind, and dreams of working as a carpenter, he sought a better life in the United States of America. Unfortunately, when he arrived in the city, he immediately faced a myriad of obstacles.
Like the hundreds of thousands of other immigrants who fled to New York in pursuit of a better life, Riis was forced to take up residence in one of the city’s notoriously cramped and disease-ridden tenements. Living in squalor and unable to find steady employment, Riis worked numerous jobs, ranging from a farmhand to an ironworker, before finally landing a role as a journalist-in-training at the New York News Association.
As he excelled at his work, he soon made a name for himself at various other newspapers, including the New-York Tribune where he was hired as a police reporter. Faced with documenting the life he knew all too well, he used his writing as a means to expose the plight, poverty, and hardships of immigrants. Eventually, he longed to paint a more detailed picture of his firsthand experiences, which he felt he could not properly capture through prose. So, he made a life-changing decision: he would teach himself photography.
Riis soon began to photograph the slums, saloons, tenements, and streets that New York City’s poor reluctantly called home. Often shot at night with the newly-available flash function—a photographic tool that enabled Riis to capture legible photos of dimly lit living conditions—the photographs presented a grim peek into life in poverty to an oblivious public.
In 1890, Riis compiled his photographs into a book, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. Featuring never-before-seen photos supplemented by blunt and unsettling descriptions, the treatise opened New Yorkers’ eyes to the harsh realities of their city’s slums. Since its publication, the book has been consistently credited as a key catalyst for social reform, with Riis’ belief “that every man’s experience ought to be worth something to the community from which he drew it, no matter what that experience may be, so long as it was gleaned along the line of some decent, honest work” at its core.