“How the Other Half Lives”: The ethics and politics of social documentary photography, from Riis to the present

By Cara Turner.

In a New York tenement at the end of the nineteenth century, men sleep crowded together on the floor and on a ramshackle bunk bed, alongside their trunks and work boots. I was shocked when I first saw Jacob Riis’s photograph of lodgers in a crowded Bayard Street tenement, the reaction Riis intended in 1890 when he published the photobook How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York. By exposing the dirty, crowded and dangerous living conditions in New York City slums, Riis helped influence social change to tackle the problems created by overpopulation and property speculation. Amongst other socially concerned journalists of the time, Riis’s name stands out, given his pioneering approach of combining his writings with social documentary photography. Confronted by photos of hardship and conditions so far outside their daily experience, the middle and upper classes were encouraged to act. At last, rather than simply reading journalistic accounts, Riis’s photographs in all their visual immediacy presented them with the reality of ‘The Other Half’ – or at least, the seeming reality. For Susan Sontag, “The limit of photographic knowledge of the world is that, while it can goad conscience, it can, finally, never be ethical or political knowledge.” Is it not problematic that we now see Riis’s photographs as documents, as a reality, when any photograph is a construction? Should we continue to celebrate Riis’s approach and legacy, or should we challenge his othering of the urban poor?

Jacob A. (Jacob August) Riis (1849-1914). ‘Lodgers in a crowded Bayard Street tenement – “Five Cents a Spot,”‘ 1888-1889. Museum of the City of New York. 90.13.4.158.

To look at the photograph of the Bayard Street tenement is not only shocking but uncomfortable. As the viewer, we feel we are intruding on these sleeping men – or rather, that we are seeing them from the perspective of Riis, the intruder: the man on the right is caught in Riis’s flash, his face shining and his eyes on the verge of flickering open. Though Riis was using social documentary photography for ethical ends, we might question the ethics of using subjects as objects: in trying to humanise the onlooker, Riis removes the individuality and the agency of the Bayard Street men. However, many of the photographs in How the Other Half Lives capture more active subjects. In Riis’s portrait of a twelve-year old boy pulling threads in a sweatshop circa 1889, the young worker engages the camera with a steady, penetrating gaze; the men standing behind him all do the same. Is the dynamic different? Perhaps. Yet another assertion from Sontag still stands: 

“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects.”

Jacob A. (Jacob August) Riis (1849-1914). ‘Twelve-Year-Old Boy Pulling Threads in a Sweat Shop’, 1888-1889. Museum of the City of New York. 90.13.4.152.

The twelve-year old boy is aware of Riis’s camera and he looks back with a gaze that is almost challenging. And yet the camera is triumphant: it has turned him into an object for the interpretation of viewers as the book has been passed down over the generations. Sitting working, surrounded by older men in the sweatshop, we see a vulnerable young boy forced by his circumstances to go into work too young. As the photograph is placed alongside Riis’s writing on the social problems of poor housing and poverty in New York, we see the photograph of the boy as a victim of social problems: he is defined by his situation, rather than being presented as an individual. He is a synecdoche for the exploited children of New York’s urban poor in the late nineteenth century; in turning the boy into an object, has Riis violated him, as Sontag suggests? 

I wondered whether to reconsider my judgement when I discovered that Riis himself, a migrant from Denmark, had experienced hardship, unemployment and homelessness in New York. Can we say, then, that his was an ‘insider’ perspective, and if so, should this change our ethical judgements of the photographs? Keith Gandal’s 1997 study, The Virtues of the Vicious: Jacob Riis, Stephen Crane and the Spectacle of the Slum, highlights that as a photographer, Riis “was not relating to the poor as a reformer, a clergyman, a charity worker, or a policeman, and they did not treat him as any of these.” Instead, Gandal notes, Riis’s subjects were often intrigued by the camera and generally liked having their photographs taken. But were they aware of how Riis meant to present them, what the photos would be used for, and how viewers would perceive them? Riis employs stereotypes such as ‘the tough’ (corresponding to the contemporary notion of a ‘thug’), which he illustrates with examples of ‘typical toughs’, two portraits resembling mugshots. Rather than capturing the men as individuals, as they might see themselves, he captures them as examples of a type imposed on poor men. Working in conjunction with his descriptions of how ‘the tough’ operated, his mugshots cater to the intrigue of the upper classes, eager to learn about the supposedly strange, criminal and degenerate nature of such a type. In photographing these men, Riis appropriates them: he presents them in a manner that allows him to use their image for his purpose. Though Riis, too, may have spent nights sleeping on floors, he does not tell the stories of his subjects with sensitivity to their individuality and breadth of experience. For Sontag, “To photograph is to appropriate the thing appropriated”: is there no escape from appropriation?  

Tish Murtha, image from the ‘Juvenile Jazz Bands’ series (1979) © Ella Murtha, all rights reserved.

Appropriation through social photography is a narrative that continues to unfold. Martin Parr’s colourful, fun shots of working-class British life exemplify the changing nature of the problem: where Riis’s photographs appropriated and generalised to catalyse social change, Parr seeks to capture the aesthetics of working-class life in a way that could be seen to veer towards fetishisation. Yet there are examples which point to different potentials for social documentary photography, many of which have been exhibited at Newcastle’s Side Gallery. Side was the first gallery in the country dedicated to social photography, and for a long time the only one, until the Martin Parr Foundation opened in Bristol. One photographer whose work the gallery has returned to multiple times is Tish Murtha. Born in 1956, Murtha grew up in an industrial area near Newcastle which was hard hit by unemployment. After studying at the School of Documentary Photography at Newport College of Art, Murtha continued to document her working-class roots. Sarah Moroz wrote in The New York Times that Murtha’s “relentless vision can be characterized by a single trait: empathy.” This empathy is manifested through Murtha’s sensitivity to capturing a range of moods. One of her series, Juvenile Jazz Bands (1979), captures kids who had been rejected from marching bands but continued to practice. The children’s eccentricity and their pleasure in play comes through despite being shadowed by the backdrops of bleak wastelands and street corners, and the result is a sense of poignancy – their present and future hardship and lack of possibilities lingers. In one photograph, children in the background push over a car whilst those in the foreground sit playing; through the juxtaposition between calm and chaos, Murtha has captured the range of moods and energies felt by these children. The shots in this series, and Murtha’s photographs in general, channel a playfulness absent from Riis’s work: Murtha show us smiles, energetic movement and eccentric games. She captures enough background to show that the children live in hardship, but they are not defined by it. Murtha’s empathy is different to Riis’s: in her photographs, we see individuals, idiosyncrasies and breadth of experience.

Rut Blees Luxemburg, ‘A Modern Project, Highrise,’ 1995, courtesy of the artist.

The increasing democratisation and ubiquity of photography has opened doors for working class photographers to tell a more diverse range of stories through the medium. The High Rise Project, based in Leeds, aims to explore the history of social housing and the lived experience of communities. The initiative of bringing together professional photographers and artists and communities has much potential, facilitating the sharing of skills, experiences, information, and ideas. Whilst Riis and Murtha visually foregrounded people, the High Rise Project spotlights architecture and space, much like Rut Blees Luxemburg, who shot her photo of an east London tower block in 1995 as part of an exploration of modernist architecture and its application in social housing in Britain. A Modern Project, Highrise captures a complicated world: euphoria, intensity and futurism burst out of monotone, concrete banality. You can see why it was used by The Streets for their album, Original Pirate Material. The album’s content and style reflect the complexity and multifaceted experience of British working-class life: there’s boredom and hopelessness, but also humour and euphoria. Since Riis’s far more black-and-white depiction of abject poverty, social photography has come a long way. Although Sontag highlights the omnipresent problematics of photography in general, we can now see the potential for social photography to convey experience in a way that is more empathetic and open to diversity of experience. And yet Riis opened the door for this. Problematic as it may be, his photograph of the Bayard Street tenement has been and still is pervasive, and its uncomfortable aspects make it cut all the deeper.

Social documentary photography is a minefield: problematics of appropriation, the gaze, method and aims abound; but it’s also a rich field for new perspectives.