Jacob Riis’ Photographs were shocking and moving, as they displayed an unfiltered version of America’s past. Many times, we choose to tell our American story through the eyes of American exceptionalism; a “city on the hill” built by hardworking people. But the way that we built our infrastructure wasn’t so honorable because, in fact, it was built on the backs of the poor, working class.
Photograph found here
I found this photo particularly striking because we see a laborer in a poverty, displayed in the most unfiltered way. We see a tired and unhappy laborer. The caption tells us that this is where he lives and we are to infer that the belongings around him are all that he has. He is truly impoverished. He seems to be without access to showers or a way to clean himself, he is without a proper bed and seems only to have the clothes on his back. In this way, at least in my opinion, he is being denied basic rights.
What was most striking to me was the caption. The caption read “In sleeping quarters, Rivington Street Dump”. I had studied the picture first, trying to understand what was being portrayed until the caption caught my eye. I realized that not only is he living in extreme poverty, but he is living in a dump. I assumed he was living in a basement or out of a small room, when he doesn’t really have a “real” home. So then I went back to the picture and studied his face and that is where I found the true narrative. He is a poor, working class man. He looks tired and despondent, reflecting the feelings of other working class members as well. He is without a home, and seems to be, without a family.
Fredrick Douglas said that, sadly, his story wasn’t unique. In the same way, this laborer’s story is not unique in that many other working class people struggled in poverty and struggle. And that is precisely the type of American History that we often leave out.
Riis, Jacob. In Sleeping Quarters, Rivington Street Dump. N.d. How the Other Half Lives, n.p.