How a New Technology & A Caring Invidual Changed Our World

There are times when a societal issue coupled with new technology and, most importantly, a person who cares and makes an effort to use this new technology can make a huge difference for good in the lives of individuals. This is the story of just such a partnership. A new technology, flash photography, coupled with an individual, Jacob Riis, combine to make the difference in the lives of immigrants in New York City, many who had little food, inadequate or no shelter and no pathway to a better future.


  Jacob Riis
One Person Can Make a Difference


Jacob Riis used photography to change living conditions for immigrants. The Progressive Era was at its height in the late 1880s and 1890s. Riis shocked upper and middle-class Americans with photographs that showed the desperate lives of the poor. Jacob Riis' exposés (public showings of his photos) persuaded reformers to work for change.

Riis was born in 1849 in Denmark and imigrated to the United States in 1870. As a poor, new immigrant to the United States, Jacob Riis learned what it was like to spend a night in the dirty, overcrowded lodging houses of the New York City Police Department.

After doing agricultural work for a few years, Riis returned to New York City. Jacob Riis was a newspaper reporter from 1877 to 1899. He used the job to expose the slums of the Lower East Side.

Riis found that words alone could not communicate the squalor he saw. [Riis] used the technical improvement of night photography (using an explosive flash material to give light to images during the night) to show how the poor lived. He wandered the streets from midnight to dawn recording the sordid conditions.

A tenement apartment might house a family of nine or ten in two small rooms. There was little sanitation. In basements, mattresses were tightly stacked on platforms built one on top of another. Men could rent a bed for the night. Orphaned children slept on the streets. Illnesses usually meant death for slum dwellers who could not afford health care.

Emergence of “Muckraking” Journalism Riis’s crusading work as a “muckraker” took over his life. He resigned as a reporter and toured as a lecturer. The audience often gasped when he showed his photographs. Riis also published books. The most famous was How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890. Riis used photos of children to wring people’s hearts in Children of the Poor (1892) and Children of the Tenement (1903). In addition to publishing his photos in books and giving lectures Riis would work with the local politicians to try to bring about change to the living conditions of New York's poor.

New York City Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, later the 26th President of the United States, sometimes accompanied Riis to the tenements. Roosevelt shut down the police lodging houses. Laws were passed to improve tenement housing with airshafts and toilets. Parks, playgrounds, and more schools were built. Riis died in 1914. [Riis] had pioneered the use of photojournalism to expose corruption.

Taken from Jacob Riis BIOGRAPHY ACTIVITY 17C (continued)
Copyright © by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. Part of resource materials for The American Journey, text.


CLICK HERE to watch a short video on the invention of flash photography

CLICK HERE to watch a short video on Jacob Riis (Important, this video has an audio mistake at 7:42, there is a loud screech sound at this point. Don't let it frighten you and reduce volume)


In Google Docs, login and create a new document. Type your name on the top and your class period. Then type the following title, JACOB RIIS PHOTOJOURNALIST Please write the question down first and then your answer. Use complete sentences and lookup words you don't know the meaning. When you have answered all the questions, SHARE your Google Doc with Mr. Durfee at

Questions to type up and answer:
1. What did Jacob Riis do to expose the terrible living conditions of New York City's poor?
2. What technical improvement in photography allowed Riis to take photographs in the dark?
3. Look at the photographic images taken by Jacob Riis, CLICK HERE and after viewing these photos, write your impressions of what you observed. In other words, how did these photographs make you feel? Where were these people's living conditions like? What do you imagine their lives must have been like?
4. List three ways that Riis communicated his message to the public.
5. How did Theodore Roosevelt support Riis’s work?
6. What reforms were sparked by Riis’s exposure of the corrupt living conditions for the poor?


There are many times where improvements in technology coupled with caring people have changed our world for the better. Can you think of one right now? Some of the most important changes in our world's technology that have saved millions and millions of lives have been the discovery and research into communical disease and the development of vacinations to prevent these disease. Each year billions of the earth's people are vacinated against many horrific diseases like polio, smallpox, whooping cough, red measles. As long as a society is vacinating its people these diseases will cease to exist.

Here is a short video on a group of people who have taken a new technology, 3D printing, and used this technology in a most creative way to build inexpensive homes for populations of people who had little chance of obtaining adequate housing. CLICK HERE to Watch the 3D House Printing video

Think for a moment while asking yourself this question: Is the world a better place for your being here? Do you make others lives easier through acts of kindness? Do you help to pick up trash, not just create it? Do you show love and compassion to all of your classmates? Do you help out at home without being asked?

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