How the Other Half Lives is first and foremost a work of photojournalism—one of the first examples of this new genre, which combined narrative with photographic illustrations and which, in the twentieth century, would become a key tool for documenting and addressing inequality. A relatively new medium at the time, photography gave readers striking physical evidence of a world of which many were unaware or unwilling to believe existed. But even in addition to the photographs accompanying the narrative (and today some versions of the book leave the photos out), the work is also characterized by a confidence in the power of the visual to expose hidden or unpleasant realities and to incite society toward change and reform.
While certain forms of photography had existed since the middle of the nineteenth century, consumer photography—rather than photography as a professional practice—was still new when Riis was reporting toward the end of the century. An amateur himself, he was nonetheless able to bring a camera with him into the neighborhoods he visited and document what he saw there. And while photography would eventually become accepted as an art form just like literature, many understood it as fully unbiased evidence. Even as the book uses literary modes like dramatic irony and suspense, then, photography allows Riis to claim a certain objectivity for his work, situating it in the realm of science more than art. How the Other Half Lives would set an important paradigm for social reformers who could use this tool to reveal realities otherwise easy to pretend didn’t exist.
The very language that Riis uses is highly visual in nature as well. The book is structured as a tour in which the author guides the reader through various neighborhoods: we are meant to imagine ducking into tenements and peering down certain alleyways. Riis sometimes addresses the reader directly as if they were present next to him, pointing out details—for instance, asking the reader to watch out for the children playing in the street, or to be careful amid the darkness of a saloon. Such techniques allow the narrator to serve an authoritative and explanatory function—the narrative equivalent of photography—but also to create a vivid, evocative portrayal of the setting Riis is exploring. By “showing” rather than “telling,” the book demonstrates the conviction that if readers could truly experience or visualize “how the other half lives,” they might be more willing to work toward reforming social inequalities.
Photography and Visual Language ThemeTracker
Photography and Visual Language Quotes in How the Other Half Lives
Long ago it was said that “one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.” That was true then. It did not know because it did not care. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate of those who were underneath, as long as it was able to hold them there and keep its own seat. There came a time when the discomfort and crowding below were so great, and the consequent upheavals so violent, that it was no longer an easy thing to do, and then the upper half fell to inquiring what was the matter.
Leaving the Elevated Railroad where it dives under Brooklyn Bridge at Franklin Square, scarce a dozen steps will take us where we wish to go. With its rush and roar echoing yet in our ears, we have turned the corner from prosperity to poverty. We stand upon the domain of the tenement.
Suppose we look into one? No.—Cherry Street. Be a little careful, please! The hall is dark and you might stumble over the children pitching pennies back there.
What if I were to tell you that this alley, and more tenement property in “the Bend,” all of it notorious for years as the vilest and worst to be found anywhere, stood associated on the tax-books all through the long struggle to make its owners responsible, which has at last resulted in a qualified victory for the law, with the name of an honored family, one of the “oldest and best,” rich in possessions and in influence, and high in the councils of the city’s government?
As we stop in front of a tenement to watch one of these groups, a dirty baby in a single brief garment—yet a sweet, human little baby despite its dirt and tatters—tumbles off the lowest step, rolls over once, clutches my leg with unconscious grip, and goes to sleep on the flagstone, its curly head pillowed on my boot.
The changing of Tompkins Square from a sand lot into a beautiful park put an end for good and all to the Bread and Blood Riots of which it used to be the scene, and transformed a nest of dangerous agitators into a harmless, beer-craving band of Anarchists. They have scarcely been heard of since. Opponents of the small parks system as a means of relieving the congested population of tenement districts, please take note.
One may walk many miles through the homes of the poor searching vainly for an open reading-room, a cheerful coffee-house, a decent club that is not a cloak for the traffic in rum. The dramshop yawns at every step, the poor man’s club, his forum and his haven of rest when weary and disgusted with the crowding, the quarreling, and the wretchedness at home.
There is often tragic interest in the struggles of the ensnared wretches to break away from the meshes spun about them. But the maelstrom has no bowels of mercy; and the would-be fugitives are flung back again and again into the devouring whirlpool of crime and poverty, until the end is reached on the dissecting-table, or in the Potter’s Field.
The man was arrested, of course, and locked up. To-day he is probably in a mad-house, forgotten. And the carriages roll by to and from the big stores with their gay throng of shoppers. The world forgets easily, too easily, what it does not like to remember.
The sea of a mighty population, held in galling fetters, heaves uneasily in the tenement. […]
I know of but one bridge that will carry us over safe, a bridge founded upon justice and built of human hearts.