How The Other Half Lives

Photography is often more than just a way of capturing pictures. Sometimes it can be a way of bringing a new level of awareness about a situation to those who have the ability to effect change. Photojournalists especially try to do this by capturing the images of today’s news so that we can not only hear and read reports of what happened, but can see it happening with our own eyes. However, since images can be so powerful, photojournalists try to adhere to a very strict standard of ethics. This code demands that the photographs presented be honest and impartial, telling the story in strictly journalistic terms. Photojournalists do not try to edit or manipulate their images much and do not try to stage events to present a certain “look” as other photographers might.

In today’s world, with its 24/7 news cycle, hundreds of channels, and a world where photography is not new, many people discount the impact that photojournalists can have. However, in the late 1800s, a single publication led to the revamping of much of New York City’s Lower East side when photographer Jacob Riis, a successful police photographer, published his collection of images entitled How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York. Riis believed that the high crime rates found in the slum tenements were due to the poverty and poor conditions of the housing. He also believed that if the upper classes of New York could learn about and see these conditions, they would help to ameliorate them.

Each chapter of his book describes in detail — and provides accompanying images — the lives of the poor in New York City and ends with a plan that would help not only the poor living in the slum tenements but would also benefit the rest of the city. After How the Other Half Lives came out, the wealthy New Yorkers came together to do as Riis had hoped and alleviated much of the suffering and the poor conditions in the slums. The worst of the tenements were torn down, the public school system was reformed, and sweatshops were closed. Over the next decade, many other improvements were made to the Lower East side including better sewage facilities, garbage collection, and running water.

All of these changes came to be because one man with a camera decided to show the world how the other half was living. That’s part of the magic of photography.

— da Bird