Own Research 9 – Riis and Hine

In 1890 Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives which can be found online and makes for interesting reading even if it diverted me away from what I was supposed to be doing on here… In so many ways it reminded me of Charles Booth’s Inquiry into Life and Labour in London The first edition of which was published in two volumes, as Life and Labour of the People, Vol. I (1889) and Labour and Life of the People, Vol II (1891).The second edition was entitled Life and Labour of the People in London, and was produced in 9 volumes 1892-97. A third edition, running to a grand total of seventeen volumes appeared 1902-3.

Using his photography ‘as a vehicle for eliciting social change’ Riis has become synonymous with the ideals of the social documentary tradition.Jacob Riis immigrated to America from Denmark in 1870, I find it quite fascinating that the photographers I have been researching recently have not been natives of the countries that they have been capturing and commenting on. Why, I don’t know as this happens all the time when journalists set out to photograph war, famines and natural disasters.

At first he struggled to find steady employment turning his hand to many trades, experiencing ‘the worst aspects of American urbanism–crime, sickness, squalor–in the low-rent tenements and lodging houses’ and this probably was the inspiration behind his book.

Eventually he managed to obtain a job as a journalist, a police reporter for The New York Tribune, and therefore ‘a platform for exposing the plight of the lower class community,’ befriending police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, in the process who declared that Riis had ‘the great gift of making others see what he saw and feel what he felt.’

Riis taught himself photography and took a camera with him on his nightly rounds capturing ‘the dark, over-crowded tenements, grim saloons and dangerous slums’- the invention of flash photography making this possible.

Full of apologetically harsh accounts of life in the worst slums of New York, fascinating and terrible statistics on tenement living, and reproductions of his revelatory photographs, How the Other Half Lives was a shock to many New Yorkers – and an immediate success. Not only did it sell well, but it inspired Roosevelt to close the worst of the lodging houses and spurred city officials to reform and enforce the city’s housing policies. To once again quote the future President of the United States: “The countless evils which lurk in the dark corners of our civic institutions, which stalk abroad in the slums, and have their permanent abode in the crowded tenement houses, have met in Mr. Riis the most formidable opponent every encountered by them in New York City.”


Along side Riis there is Lewis Hine.

There is work that profits children, and there is work that brings profit only to employers. The object of employing children is not to train them, but to get high profits from their work.

— Lewis Hine, 1908

After the Civil War American experienced an industrial boom. Adults alone failed to fulfill the demand for labourers and as factory wages were so low children also had to work to supplement the family income. The number of children under the age of 15 who worked in industrial jobs for wages climbed from 1.5 million in 1890 to 2 million in 1910.

Gradually people woke up to the deprivations children suffered, the danger, the illnesses and the immorality of it all. and by the early 1900s many Americans were calling it ‘child slavery,’demanding that it ended. In 1904 the National Child Labor Committee was founded its aim? The abolition of child labour.

Lewis Hine, was a New York City schoolteacher and photographer, who strongly believed that photographs could tell a powerful story. He quit his teaching job and became an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, photographing the working conditions of children in all types of industries and carefully documenting eash image with precise facts and figures. He never pretended that he was objective with the subject matter often describing his work as ‘photo-interpretation.’

Effective action against child labor had to await the New Deal. Reformers, however, did succeed in forcing legislation at the state level banning child labor and setting maximum hours. By 1920 the number of child laborers was cut to nearly half of what it had been in 1910.

Sadly like many famous painters and artists Lewis Hine died in poverty, neglected by all but a few. Now recognised as a master of his trade, and through his exercise of free speech and freedom of the press, how he ‘made a difference in the lives of American workers and, most importantly, American children’ hundreds of his photographs are available online from the National Archives through the National Archives Catalog .


On reading their respective history’s and on viewing their images and the impact they had on society at the time I can understand why these two photographers are considered to be social reformers and the founders or at least the starting point in social documentary photography.


@lifesansbldgs, F. and Stamp, J. (2014) Pioneering social reformer Jacob Riis revealed ‘how the other Half lives’ in America. Available at: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/pioneering-social-reformer-jacob-riis-revealed-how-other-half-lives-america-180951546/ (Accessed: 21 December 2016).

Bartleby2015 (1993) Riis, Jacob A. 1890. How the other Half lives. Available at: http://www.bartleby.com/208/ (Accessed: 21 December 2016).

Teaching with documents: Photographs of Lewis Hine: Documentation of child labor (2016) Available at: https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/hine-photos (Accessed: 21 December 2016).