How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890) was a pioneering work of photojournalism by Jacob Riis, documenting the squalid living conditions in New York City slums in the 1880s. It served as a basis for future muckraking journalism by exposing the slums to New York City’s upper and middle class.
During the 1880s upper- and middle-class society were unaware of the dangerous conditions in the slums among the poor immigrants. Jacob Riis, an immigrant himself who could not originally find work, hoped to expose the squalor of the 19th century Lower East Side neighborhood in Manhattan. After a successful career as a police reporter he decided to publish a photojournal documenting these conditions using graphic descriptions, sketches, photographs, and statistics. Riis blamed the apathy of the monied for the condition of the New York slums, and assumed that as people were made more aware of these conditions they would be more apt to help eradicate them.
How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York emerged as a result, featuring fifteen halftone images and forty-three drawings based on photographs. This photojournal directly blamed crowded, unsanitary tenements as the cause of crime and moral decay. By modern standards, Riis’s intention was conservative, targeting the wealthy as a source for tenement construction rather than calling for government intervention. He hoped that the combination of charity and plea for private investors to take less profit when building tenements would provide adequate lodgings.
Due to the recent invention of flash photography, Riis was able to capture the unlit areas of tenements, which helped him expose wretched working and living conditions. This unveiled a new perspective of nightlife in dark places that were often not even lit by streetlight, much less seen by the average New Yorker. The harsh white light from magnesium flash powder caused a look of shock to register on the faces of those photographed and came to stand for candid and objective photography.
Riis gained credibility from this signature flash lighting and due to the spontaneous look of the newly introduced snapshot. However, not all Riis’s photographs were spontaneous: his images of street children show them obviously feigning sleep. Like many social observers of the time, Riis also implicitly divided the poor into two categories: undeserving and deserving. Women and small children often fit into the first category, and unemployed and criminally inclined men in the second.
How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York explained not only the living conditions in New York slums, but also the sweatshops run in some tenements paying its workers only a few cents a day. The book explains the plight of working children; they would work in factories and at other jobs. Some children became garment workers and newsies (newsboys). The book gave all who read it a better idea of the plights of the less fortunate in New York.
How The Other Half Lives, along with other works of Riis, were greatly influenced by the reporting of Charles Dickens, whom Riis greatly admired for his stories of London’s poor. Much of Riis’s writing style is similar to Dicken’s, who used first-person encounters to expose the “other half.” Riis, however, often wrote with a sense of righteousness that is lacking in his British counterpart.
The work of Danish-immigrant reporter Riis, How the Other Half Lives led to wider public knowledge and sympathy for slum residents. However, Riis was also criticized for the methods he used in creating his photographic exposé. For example, he illegally entered private residences and accidentally started fires using primitive flash photography in the confined quarters of extremely flammable tenement structures.
Riis's writing also reflects many of the prejudices of the time; he spends entire chapters characterizing and negatively portraying the Chinese, Jews, Italians, and Irish of the tenement district. Riis’ middle class and Protestant backgrounds weighed heavily in his presentation. It instilled a strong capitalist idealism; while he pitied certain poor examined as worthy, others he viewed with contempt. According to Riis, certain races were doomed to failure, as certain lifestyles caused families’ hardships.
An example of Riis's ubiquitous ethnic stereotyping is seen in his analysis of how various immigrant groups master the English language: "Unlike the German, who begins learning English the day he lands as a matter of duty, or the Polish Jew, who takes it up as soon as he is able as an investment, the Italian learns slowly, if at all.
It is worth bearing in mind here that Riis was writing for a specific audience, and was therefore playing upon the biases of that audience. Even in his most racially insensitive passages, he still writes with a genuine sympathy for his subjects.
How The Other Half Lives, as the preface to the Dover edition states, "quickly became a landmark in the annals of social reform." Riis documents the filth, disease, exploitation, and overcrowding that characterized the experience of more than one million immigrants. He helped push tenement reform to the front of New York's political agenda, and prompted then-Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt to close down the police-run poor houses. Roosevelt later called Riis "the most useful citizen of New York".
Riis argued for better housing, adequate lighting and sanitation, and the construction of city parks and playgrounds. He portrayed middle-class and upper-class citizens as benefactors and encouraged them to take an active role in defining and shaping their communities. As a result, awareness of the situation of the poor caused those with the ability to help to be roused from their lethargy, inspiring, among other reforms, the New Law Tenement.