Documenting "The Other Half": The Social Reform Photography of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine
Photography and Social ReformJacob RiisLewis HineSlideshows

Analysis of Riis Photographs

The Reporter of Mulberry Bend

Photographs and Lantern-Slide Lectures

How the Other Half Lives

Later Reform Efforts

Analysis of Riis Photographs

Jacob Riis's ideological views are evident in his photographs.

Appealing to the Victorian Conscience
Riis believed that environmental changes could improve the lives of the numerous unincorporated city residents that had recently arrived from other countries. Riis attempted to incorporate these citizens by appealing to the Victorian desire for cleanliness and social order.

In his photographs, Riis showed that the unincorporated could be dangerous; that their abodes were dirty; that neighborhood streets were crime-ridden. By appealing to the consciences and fears of middle-class and upper-class city residents, Riis helped initiate reform efforts.

Riis's photographs had a certain shock value. He looked for images that would have a strong effect on his viewers—dirty children on the streets, men living in dumps and cellars.

Man in Dump Man in Cellar

Mothers and Children
Riis's photographs challenged Victorian notions of mothers and children. One of his photographs shows a mother with her naked children standing on a rooftop. In others, children play out on the streets unattended. These photographs contrasted sharply with images of children in late-nineteenth-century America.

Roof Slide

Riis's photographs also challenged Victorian notions of the home. In one photograph, a tenement family makes cigars at the table. In another, a man sits down to a solitary meal in a coal cellar.

Cigar Makers Coal Cellar

In addition to people, Riis photographed empty barracks and dilapidated housing.

Barracks Tenements

De-Emphasizing the Individual

He often de-emphasized the individual in favor of the total setting. Accordingly, he photographed many of his subjects at a distance to show them in their squalid surroundings.


It was not Riis's custom to provide the names of his subjects. When he did provide identifying material, it was often condescending. Such commentary revealed Riis's own ambivalence to his subject matter. Like many middle-class Americans, Riis disapproved of immorality and disorder, and he found both in the neighborhoods in which he worked.

Riis's lack of experience as a photographer sometimes worked to his advantage. His blurred, half-lit images both fascinated and frightened his audiences.

Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2000-2003