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Documentary Photo


In the nineteenth century, the living conditions in remote districts of New York were below poverty level because people have to survive in the slums. In response to it, social workers, reporters, and journalists strive to raise the issue to the government and engage in various activities. In fact, the story of the industrial American in nineteenth century could be witnessed through the documentary photography presented by journalists and reported. Indeed, documentary photography was a sort of social conscious and liberal sensibility represented through visual images. The reporter was also among the pioneers who managed to represent the life of poor people with the help of technology. Finally, Jacob August Riis was one of those journalists and social documentary photographers who thought to render the squalor of New York regions through photos and images. Specifically, the reporter resorted to reconstructing the past by means of documentary to render the tangible reality, despair, and poverty.

Essence and Purpose of Social Documentary Photography

Social documentary photography differs significantly from the traditional artistic photography known nowadays. John Riis, along with other famous social documentary photographers, such as Jessica Tarbox Beals, Lewis Hine, has focused on the result of these images and how it is explained and interpreted. In this respect, it should be stressed that photograph is not the only alone in conveying the meaning of the image to the viewers. In fact, each photograph is bound to its caption, context, and associated text6, which presents an authoritative agency. With regard to the above, documentary photography is attached to a singly topic spanning over time, in contrast to photojournalism photography which covers real-time events. By exploring the understanding an emotional connection to the stories of the past about injustice, public attention and people’s protection of their human rights, it is possible to attain greater important to the documentary photography, which is essential for expanding on the diverse perspective of reflecting about society. In contrast to the artistic visual art, the major function of social documentary photography is to take social actions and solve such important problems as discrimination and corruption, a complex work which implies multiple reforms and actors. The government and the social organization can rely on such photographers to increase effectiveness of the current social activities aimed at eliminating poverty and improving social living conditions.

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The analysis of the functions and major spheres of influence of social photography leads to the major achievements and genuine purposes of Jacob Riis. In fact, the reporter acknowledged that text without visual representation does not make diligent impression on readers. Therefore, that taking pictures by flashlights in the most remote corners in Germany could much more effective to highlight the actual problems and make people resort to the corresponding actions. Such activists like Riss strongly appealed to the awareness of poverty, prostitution, immortality, radicalism, and disease – which threaten the security of society, as well as alleviate any sympathy for the poor. The notion of charity has been downgraded significantly because of the reluctance of people to be more open to the social disasters. A few words should be presented about Jacob Riis as a complex, sophisticated personality. Indeed, he was ambitious and straightforward with the huge potential to disclose and discuss major social problems. Although Riis’ photos served to provide poor conditions of the tenements and were acknowledged during the publication time, historians are currently criticize some of the work he did due to the absence of objective and accuracy of the facts represented, as well as reluctance of some investors and governmental figures to invest efforts and finances into the development of the highlighted parts of the New York.

Analysis of Riis’ Photos

To delve deeper into the authentic value of documentary photography, one should look at the pictures taken by Riis. There is picture called “Five Cents a Spot” that was taken in 1890 by Riis, which fully conveys and expands the definition of poverty. The image presents the terror of poverty and extremely poor conditions of living in the suburban regions of the town. It is also a possibility of representing of completely two different cities – the gorgeous business center of New York, and the poor New York, where people strive to survive in hunger and despair. The contrast between the “two cities” is not an original topic, but few travelers or witnesses could conceive the root of the problem unless they see it with their own eyes.

The technology of photography used by Jacob Riis has been effective for unveiling the life of poor, making this generation of people visible to others. According to Roberts, “his lantern slide shows…and illustrated articles and books harnessed the nascent potential of grainy flash photography”. Riis’ real for disclosure, therefore, outlined the agenda of public activities, engaging influential figures, such as Theodore Roosevelt, who was the ex-police commissioner who was advanced to the presidency.

The picture at issue, is represented in the Museum of the City of New York in exhibition called, “Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half”, where the author expands on the images, manuscripts, videos, and artifacts which reflect on the history, ethnicity, and Christian traditions in conveying the ordinary life of the poor. Indeed, by combining photography and textual representation, video and evidence, Riis managed to recreate the facts and convey the major facts about the history of poverty. This is an outstanding journalist who managed to grasp the art of nighttime photography and contrast tenements, sweatshops, and back alleys of the Lower East Side with the elite regions of New York. Furthermore, Riis galvanized the public and ignited people for action, improving their utmost ideas regarding the value of the photography.

Overview of Other Works and Riis’ View on Social Life in New York

The exhibition of social photography presented by Riis is called “The Other Half” of New York and is aimed at disclosing the reverse side of the medal of living in New York, the city of opportunities and perspectives. On the one hand, Riis’s photos played an important role in unveiling all the dimensions of cultural, political and economic life in the city. The photographer also argued for higher level of lighting and sanitation, better housing and construction of playgrounds and city parks. The reporter also portrayed middle- and upper-class citizens and motivated to take an active part in shaping and identifying communities. Riis argued that charitable citizens can help the poor society and acknowledging them to be “the other half” of society. However, not all citizens were willing to invest in people with no benefits, who cannot repay to them with similar support. The reformers’ problem, therefore, was to awake the public from ignorance, increase their consciousness and ignite their enthusiasm for improving social conditions. Nonetheless, the critics of investment and charity stated that poverty was the result of moral and individual ignorance. At this point, the poor should not be supported through charities. Riis, as one of the reformers, argued that poverty is often the result of the environmental circumstances, and, therefore, reform efforts are essential for social improvement. According to the reporter, “The reason charity has been discredited is because it has worked with the broken fragments, the drunken and the shiftless, helping as it could, mourning that such things must be, but never asking the reason why or knowing anything of the honest, thrifty poor who live lives of heroism such as we cannot live”. In this respect, the reporter underscored the fact that moral citizens should be credited with the second change, regardless of their economic status, for the purpose of improving their conditions of life. Furthermore, Riis was determined to cooperate with the activists from middle- and upper-class to foster the reform. He also believes that private wealth could help the citizens to turn the slums into better living. The report was confident about the systematic, organized charity on the evidence of support. A great number of specialized approaches and activities are presented in the reporters’ biographic sketch.

Apart from social contributions to the development of the municipal reforms in the New York City, Riis was also pioneered in promoting new technologies of photographing. As such, the reporter began taking photos from the slow, wet-plane negative, and transferred to the faster, more efficient dry-plat approach as soon as it became acceptable. Additionally, Riis was among the first in the United States who used flash for creating light in the photo in places which were dark. The high-contrast photos, therefore, emphasized the grittiness of elite hotels in Low East Site and grasped the alley called Bandit’s Roost. Newspapers and social media, however, were not enthusiastic about publicizing his image because halftone printing was not cost-effective. The early publications of his own book, called, How the Other Half Lives is wrought with illustrations of photos of the poor regions. The audience who visited Riis’ lectures, had also to attend evangelical churches to contemplate his photos on a screen with the help of “magic lantern”. The multidimensional delivery of words and images focused on the audience in a memorable, fresh way.

It should be stressed that Riis’ photos engaged middle-class of New York into an exciting journey locating their own city, which is unknown to them. While witnessing those photos, Riis also identified himself with those people on the images. He also tried to walk those alleys and stand in the darkest corners of the rooms and streets. In response to this, many reporters have also commented on these photos to prove that this activity is worth investing efforts in. Furthermore, it is also an opportunity to make use of technologies as a means of enhancing and expanding the story telling, rather than a means of making narration more effective and convenient for themselves. In the book, Riis unveils the ethical dilemmas made for capturing those images. The report also admits that admitting the problem, but not acting is the plague of society which is not motivated to contribute to its prosperity. In this respect, a new media reporter, Riis could be regarded as one of the journalist to grasp the reaction that those images can promote. However, when Riis depicts ethnic populations in New York, the report is represented as self-hating immigrant. In other words, he introduced what are considered today as middle-class prejudices and stereotypes. He also argued that the cramped alleys that are on his photos were the result of criminal behavior and poverty. Hence, Riis demonstrates audiences’ images of the overt scenery of his origins from Denmark to approve the reasons for his ambitious and industrial attitude to the New York immigrants. According to Niva, “he stretched from John Wesley’s lesson that hoarding wealth harmed one’s neighbor in order to convince New Yorkers to spend their money on city parks instead of sending more missionaries overseas”. However, his zest for open space made Riis to continuously use flash powder and discover new decrepit tenements even after he set fire to two houses. Hence, the case shows the way new technologies can deteriorate buildings, serving as a lesson for journalist to be more cautious while using new technologies.

Counterargument: Controversies in Riis’ Photography

The scholarly analysis of Riis’ achievements shows that scientific, spontaneous reality represented by Riis was under the manipulation. The point is that the limits of photography demanded objects to stand still, even while taking photos with flash powder. Some researchers were concerned whether people from photos would have been aware of being photographed and have posed if they had realized the captions of their images. This is why some of the viewers of his works and articles did not agree with the conception and were doubtful about the evidence provided.

Nowadays, media is still struggling to define the limits of objectiveness and fairness. The technology goes ahead of age, with the emergence of social networks, which try to strike the balance between social right for equal access to information and the individuals’ confidentiality. The risk to technology required Riis and his supporters to follow those rules. In this respect, some of his social documentary could not be justified and morally approved. His books, photography, articles, and lecture can allow the audience to witness the life of Lower East Side. Currently, there is a way larger opportunity to post videos, photos from disasters, catastrophes, and other contingencies without permission. There are newspapers which can also provide photos of deaths, deteriorations and bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan. Similar to Riis’ stories, the current plots presented on the World Wide Web are also controversial in terms of the ethical issues and problem of confidentiality. However, Riis’s work should not severely be criticized because his genuine intentions were positive.

Finally, it should be acknowledged, that there was a great number of misconceptions n the document. Specifically, Riis’ documentary was presented with no reference to the objectivity of journalistic investigations of poverty. The book is wrought with inaccurate, unreliable arguments and prejudiced judgments about Italians and Irish people. The Chinese and Jews were less criticized, which presented a sort of racial biases and subjective attitude. It is also interesting to mentioned that one of the most interesting facts in the book refer to the chart looking at the building rents for white and black people which demonstrates that rents were lower for black people because they represented a more appropriate candidate for immigrants. In general, Riis’ articles and documents have had and is currently having enormous influence on contemporary issues.


One should definitely admit that Riis’ story shows the positive influence of experimenting with the new technologies offering a useful template for the successors. His photos and images have expanded social awareness regarding the social importance of environment in improving the living conditions and shaping the new forms of citizenship. What is more important is that Riis created the evidence leading to the destruction of improper housing and buying the Croton Watershed that supplies clean water to the U.S. largest city. Furthermore, President Theodor Roosevelt also called Riis as the most useful representative of the New York City.

In order to understand Riis’ overall work and its contribution to the social development, one should evaluate his book called How the Other Half Lives. In his book, the reporter literally wanted to show the world as it was. Therefore, to help readers delve deeper into the genuine risks of neighborhoods, it is possible to provide the visual and textual representation of reality. Riis was indeed among the most important users of photography allowing other reporters understand what could be done to improve the living conditions, being the powerful tool for social conditions. The book, therefore, is a treatise and belief in the fact that each person’s experience should be essential for the community to become more conscious and understand what hardship poor people should overcome on the way to survival. It is logical that the book was a shocking event for many citizens of New York, as well as the immediate success. It also inspired the president Theodore Roosevelt to close the damaged houses and motivate governmental authorities and municipal establishment to enforce and reform the housing policies. To enlarge on the book in more detail, it should be stressed that it is aimed at highlighting the out-of-touch upper classes and inform people about the major horrors of the damaged housing in New York. Riis had been working for acquainting people with the life on Lower East Side and raised the most important issues in the society of the time.

The photography of truth could also have historic value to trace the current gap and technological achievements, as well as the shifts in the way information is represented. As a proof, Jensen explains, “Riis’ photographs are valuable historical evidence that can lead to the detection of historical truth”. Riis, therefore, was expert in photography, explaining his utmost interest in representing visual reality. However, some of the critics still believe that the textual complementation to the photography made by Riis was nothing but the rhetorical games for the audience to enhance the power of the photo and introduce a tool for displaying the attention. Working as a police reporter, Jacob Riis was also obliged to follow legal regulations and focus on the healthcare level of the tenements. Riis, therefore, was surprised with the results of the switch to lighting. At this point, the reporter collected a great amount of information regarding the immigrant groups in the course of the daily light and continued taking picture at night with the help of flash powder.


In conclusion, it should be stressed that Jacob Riis, the immigrant from Denmark, was one of the most outstanding police reporters who has managed to change the views of the majority on the role and importance of social documentary photography in contributing to the overall social development and welfare of the town. Specifically, the reporters investigated the slums and poor regions of New York in Lower East Side. He took photos with flash power of the darkest corners of the street to show the level of living conditions in which poor people live. Photography, therefore, serve as a powerful tool for highlighting the poverty and threat to the society, as well as call governmental authorities and rich investors to help the poorest regions of New York to deal with poverty and horrible housing in which they live. The author has also presented the book with photos and assumptions about how “the other half” of New Yorkers live to prove that some of the leaders should be concerned with the healthcare level and social level of poor people. On the one hand, the book was a real breakthrough, igniting many journalists, governmental activists, and humble people for action. On the other hand, his activities have created controversies regarding the objectivity and relevance of the pictures made. Specifically, Riis was critiqued for his prejudiced attitude to certain ethnicities, but giving credits to a specific class – African Americans. One way or another, the report was pioneer in technologies, using flash powder to take photos of the darkest corners of New York’s slums. He also resorted to the reforming activities which could change the social awareness, making them more concerned with the major hardships, challenges, and problems that the poorest group of people has to overcome on the way to survival.

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