These heartbreaking Jacob Riis photographs from How the Other Half Lives and elsewhere changed America forever.
Of the many photos said to have "changed the world," there are those that simply haven't (stunning though they may be), those that sort of have, and then those that truly have.
The photos that sort of changed the world likely did so in as much as they made us all feel something. The photos that truly changed the world in a practical, measurable way did so because they made enough of us do something.
And few photos truly changed the world like those of Jacob Riis.
The New York City to which the poor young Jacob Riis immigrated from Denmark in 1870 was a city booming beyond belief. In the three decades leading up to his arrival, the city's population, driven relentlessly upward by intense immigration, had more than tripled. Over the next three decades, it would nearly quadruple.
Unsurprisingly, the city couldn't seamlessly take in so many new residents all at once. Equally unsurprisingly, those that were left on the fringes to fight for whatever scraps of a living they could were the city's poor immigrants.
Confined to crowded, disease-ridden neighborhoods filled with ramshackle tenements that might house 12 adults in a room that was 13 feet across, New York's immigrant poor lived a life of struggle — but a struggle confined to the slums and thus hidden from the wider public eye.
Jacob Riis changed all that. Working as a police reporter for the New-York Tribune and unsatisfied with the extent to which he could capture the city's slums with words, Riis eventually found that photography was the tool he needed.
Starting in the 1880s, Riis ventured into the New York that few were paying attention to and documented its harsh realities for all to see. By 1890, he was able to publish his historic photo collection whose title perfectly captured just how revelatory his work would prove to be: How the Other Half Lives.
A startling look at a world hard to fathom for those not doomed to it, How the Other Half Lives featured photos of New York's immigrant poor and the tenements, sweatshops, streets, docks, dumps, and factories that they called home in stark detail.
And as arresting as these images were, their true legacy doesn't lie in their aesthetic power or their documentary value, but instead in their ability to actually effect change.
"I have read your book, and I have come to help," then-New York Police Commissioners board member Theodore Roosevelt famously told Riis in 1894. And Roosevelt was true to his word.
Though not the only official to take up the cause that Jacob Riis had brought to light, Roosevelt was especially active in addressing the treatment of the poor. As a city official and later as state governor and vice president of the nation, Roosevelt had some of New York's worst tenements torn down and created a commission to ensure that ones that unlivable would not be built again.
With this new government department in place as well as Jacob Riis and his band of citizen reformers pitching in, new construction went up, streets were cleaned, windows were carved into existing buildings, parks and playgrounds were created, substandard homeless shelters were shuttered, and on and on and on.
While New York's tenement problem certainly didn't end there and while we can't attribute all of the reforms above to Jacob Riis and How the Other Half Lives, few works of photography have had such a clear-cut impact on the world. It's little surprise that Roosevelt once said that he was tempted to call Riis "the best American I ever knew."
For more Jacob Riis photographs from the era of How the Other Half Lives, see this visual survey of the Five Points gangs. Then, see what life was like inside the slums inhabited by New York's immigrants around the turn of the 20th century.