He stretched 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. But in his fervor for open space, Riis also violated the same Wesleyan rule of “do no harm” that he tried to invoke. Riis, on occasion, placed the people he was trying to help at risk. He knew the danger of using flash powder indoors. Yet he continued to use it inside cramped, decrepit tenements—even after setting fire to two buildings and himself. Another cautionary lesson for today’s journalists—new technologies can create new risks and responsibilities.
Testimony from Riis’s assistant and scholarly analysis indicate that the spontaneous, scientific reality that Riis presented was actually carefully staged manipulation. The limits of photography at the time required subjects to stand still, even with flash powder. Some have questioned whether the people in his photos would have posed if they had known the captions of their photos would label them as standing in a “Den of Death,” or as living in a place where it was the “Survival of the Unfittest.”
Today’s media continue to struggle to define the boundaries of fairness. The technology pioneers of our age—Facebook and Google—are trying to balance society’s right to information and the privacy of individuals. The challenge to harness technology burdened Riis and his colleagues as much as it baffles journalists today.
Riis’s articles, books, and lectures transported his audience to the Lower East Side. Today, the website Ushahidi asks locals to report with their cell phones on stories like the struggle to provide disaster relief in Haiti; YouTube displays video of Iranian protests on desktops around the world; iPad owners can view The Guardian’s map showing an acceleration of deaths caused by bombings in Afghanistan. Like the stories of Riis, these new accounts use multimodal communication to engage the audience and shake them out of their complacency.
Riis’s story demonstrates the rewards for experimenting with and applying new technologies—an audience that stretches across a century—and offers a useful template for his successors. His images and words opened eyes to the importance of environment in shaping citizenship. Riis provided evidence that led to the destruction of inadequate housing and the purchase of the Croton Watershed that still supplies clean water to America’s largest city. President Theodore Roosevelt called Riis “New York’s most useful citizen.”
Edward Steichen selected several of Riis’s photos for a 1949 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art that helped legitimize photojournalists as artists. Riis would have had trouble seeing himself among the list of 180 celebrated photographers. He called himself an amateur photographer and played down his expertise in this new medium. Riis packed away his camera in 1898, early in his career as the author of seventeen books.
It would have been easy for the gimmick of photography to overtake Riis’s calling. But he was fully conscious that his photographs were just a means to tell a story, not the story itself. As newsrooms experiment with the new media of our day, Riis shows us that journalists are not remembered by their proficiency with technology, but by how they use it to enrich the story they have to tell.