Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Jacob Riis, The Camera Weilding Muckraker of Five Points

Jacob Riis

The other night I caught one of my favorite movies, Gangs of New York, on T.V. Though I own the film, there is always something satisfying about finding a favorite while flipping through channels. Watching the final riot scene I started to wonder how much of the story was fact and how much was fiction. A long journey down the Google hole dropped me in the lap of one Jacob Riis and the Muckrakers of the Gilded Age.

What does this have to do with the Immigration Project? For one, Jacob Riis was a Danish immigrant, and two he used photography and journalism to bring about social reform to the immigrant tenements and slums--such as Gangs of New York's Five Points--of Victorian New York City.

Here are some examples of his work:

Riis' photography, magical lantern shows, and books including, How the Other Half Lives, brought the struggle of the poor to the attention of the upper class and people in power, namely New York City Police Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt (newly discovered as my favorite U.S. President). Roosevelt and Riis' time together lead to a life long friendship and partnership in working towards social reform.

If Jacob Riis was alive now, he may have a blog. If he could see our modern world he may wonder what had changed, if anything. Today, is not much different from his day. There is still a hugely unequal distribution of wealth, the upper class continues to give a blind eye to the struggles of the poor, and the middle and lower classes blame immigrants for the poor state of the job market, housing, and wealth. And so we as artists must ask, WWJD? What would Jacob do?

He would rake the muck and so should we.


  1. I really really really love this site soooo muchh !

  2. Thanks so much! I'm glad you could relate.

  3. Riis is a compatriote of mine, and since I first heard about him, I've been touched not only by the work he did in the NY slums, but also of the fantastic saga his life turned out to be.

    A poor Danish immigrant, who ended up being the instigator of social reform in a mass scale in New York and America as such. The strong friendship between Teddy Roosevelt and Riis also makes a very interesting story ...

    Do read Tom Buk Swienty's book "The Other Half":
    A brilliant biography that tells about the life of one interesting, strongwilled, compassionate man. Plus, there was a fantastic romance in his life, a plot for which it would be difficult for any Hollywood moviemaker to come up with ....

    Nearly a hundred year after his death, Riis is still a role model today, for social justice and for social awareness of the wellbeing of our fellow man.

  4. Thank you for the recommendation. I will be sure to put that on my Amazon list.

  5. My photography project has led me here its call 'Transform' It has very similar basis and I hope to raise money out of my work for 'younite outreach project' in Nakura, Kenya. I have recently been teaching in the slum school there and its touched my heart and soul. I have sponsored a young boy who aspires to be a teacher and I hope to make this happen for him.