Photos can be a powerful tool. Both in a negative and in a positive way. Photos show reality the way it has happened, objectively and truthfully. At least that’s been the opinion of most people for a long period of time.
Nowadays one has become a bit more skeptical concerning photos and videos. We know that professionals can manipulate and also exploit almost every detail of an image with Photoshop and other programs and we’re aware that images nowadays can also be willingly used to serve certain purposes.
However, photos can also cause something positive. They can make people think, inspire and delight them. They can also create social changes, reforms and revolutions.
One guy who has changed the situations of many people in a positive way with his pictures is Jacob Riis.
In 1870 he migrated from Denmark to New York City. Like many other people at this time he arrived with a hope for a better life. Reality, however, quickly caught up with him. New York was a city full of people living in poverty, the slums were overcrowded and diseases and starvation were obvious all around.
From 1973 he worked as a journalist for several newspapers and was finally hired as an investigative reporter. Through his work he began to perceive poverty and the tragic fates of the population in New York’s slums even more intensively. He decided to capture those impressions in his photos to show the world what life in New York actually was like for many of the city’s inhabitants. Finally he published his photos in a book titled “How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York“.
His pictures were eye-openers for many people and today his photo book is accredited a key role for improving the lives in New York’s slums and for initiating an education reform.
His images made my hackles rise. The characters in the pictures often look surprised. They appear to have been photographed in their everyday lives the way it really was. Nothing looks posed or exaggerated. You realize the misery, you can’t turn away and see the necessity for change.
And it’s this fact which in my opinion makes them so valuable and which makes persons like Jacob Riis some sort of heroes.