Jacob Riis: Photojournalist and Public Health Defender

A man to be admired for his service to the public's health is photojournalist Jacob Riis (1849-1914). Riis emigrated from Denmark to NYC with his family in 1870. He spent much of his young adulthood sleeping in unsanitary police lodging stations as he was unable to find work or support himself. This is where he got his taste of the impoverished conditions in New York City. By 1888 Riis worked his way up to being a photojournalist for the New York Evening Sun (Simkin, J, Spartacus Educational). Riis was determined to expose the otherwise unknown but filthy conditions the "other half" were forced to live in. His effort was aided by flash powder, of which Riis was one of the first photographers to use. Before, not only were the poor other half ignored, but it was also difficult to document their living conditions as electricity was scarce and their homes and environments were dimly lit. After taking hundreds of photographs, in 1890 Riis published his photos and commentary in How the Other Half Lives. New York Police Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt was greatly impacted by the disturbing images he saw in the book and called for police lodging stations to be closed (Simkin, J.,Spartacus Educational). Through articles, books, and lectures Riis targeted landlords and public officials he saw as responsible for the deplorable living conditions. With the backing of many philanthropists Riis saw his work influence the making of child labor laws, education, parks, regulation of tenements (only 24/609 deemed livable), and the demolition of slums in NYC (Sussman, J.,The Newark Metro).

A public health pioneer in his own right, Riis exemplified the leadership principles needed in the field of public health. His commitment, engagement, and courage were clearly demonstrated every day and night he went out into the slums, every room or tavern he photographed, and every gang-ridden street he walked down. He shed light on how "the other half" lived to an ignorant public. His lectures, photographs, articles, and over 12 published books demonstrated his whole commitment and engagement to a growing problem in NYC (Simkin, J.,Spartacus Educational). In regards to his attitude, dignity, and perspective Riis remained a man with an unwavering goal: to improve the living conditions of the poor in NYC. Riis did not discuss bettering the lives of individuals, but rather bettering society. He stuck with this mindset and this is what appealed to people like Theodore Roosevelt. Lastly, initiative, pride, and servanthood were principles Riis stood by to bring about the change he worked so hard for. He was just a photojournalist for a news paper, but he saw a drastic problem that needed the public's attention and he took the initiative to use his talents to improve the situation. Riis really made this his life's work, he took great pride in sharing his experiences and ideas both orally, visually, and in text.

Riis had no training in health, but saw where something could be done better, for the benefit of people and society. He knew that unsanitary, crowded conditions and filthy streets were unhealthy for people. It was through his efforts that lives for many New Yorkers were improved and what he achieved is still practiced today. Riis sums up his reason for his work in the conclusion of How the Other Half Lives by stating, "Against all other dangers our system of government may offer defense and shelter; against this not. I know of but one bridge that will carry us over safe, a bridge founded upon justice and built of human hearts" (Riis, How the other Half Lives).

To see Riis' photographs and writings go to http://www.authentichistory.com/1865-1897/progressive/riis/index.html

Jacob Riis, CHAPTER XXV How the Case Stands [From How the Other Half Lives] , The Authentic History Center

John Simkin. American Journalist, Spartacus Educational.

Jonathan Sussman, Jacob Riis, Writer With a Camera, The Newark Metro.

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