A story that changed how I saw

Storyline-Riis
Jacob Riis, glass negative. (George Grantham Bain Collection/Library of Congress)

Editor’s note: At Storyline, we’re harnessing the power of stories to help you understand complex policy topics. This is one in a series of introductory posts from our team members, about how stories have helped us see things more clearly in our own lives.

Income inequality is not a new problem in America. Journalist Jacob Riis warned of the growing gap between rich and poor over a hundred years ago. And he was one of the first to document this divide through photography. Instead of just telling stories of the faceless suffering, Riis made people see what was happening in New York City at the time.

When I look at Riis’s images, I can feel what it must have been like to live there, packed in squalid quarters, struggling to sustain a semblance of a life. I can conjure the claustrophobia in the photograph titled “In a seven-cent lodging-house,” in which at least a dozen people sleep smashed side-by-side on two long, stacked bunks. I can all but smell the stench that must have wafted through the tiny quarters where the pipe-smoking man lived in “Under the dump, Rivington Street, about 1890.” I can almost feel the frustration of living in one small room with a family of seven when I see “Room in a Tenement.”

“Once already our city, to which have come the duties and responsibilities of metropolitan greatness before it was able to fairly measure its task, has felt the swell of its resistless flood. If it rise once more, no human power may avail to check it. The gap between the classes in which it surges, unseen, unsuspected by the thoughtless, is widening day by day,” wrote Riis in “How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York.”

This was one of first books we had to read in my Intro to Photojournalism course in college. It’s a publication of photographs and writing meant to expose the poor living conditions in New York City’s slums in the late 1800s. And the intention behind it all was to change those conditions. Riis even ends the book with specific ideas about how to do so. Laws were changed as a result. It’s hardly different from what we strive do with investigative journalism today.

Riis, who worked as a journalist for several newspapers in New York City during his career, has been credited as one of the first muckrakers – journalists who investigate corruption and expose injustice in an effort to create social change. Riis is among the first photojournalists to use a flash – an innovative tool invented in the late 1800s that allowed him make images of poorly lit tenement hallways and rooms. Riis wanted to make a difference in his world by making people empathize with those who were suffering, and he was willing to experiment with new tools to do so.

It was through this work that I first started to understand exactly how visual journalism can and does change our world — how a single image can transport a person, make them feel something, compel them to change the circumstances they see.

I also began to understand that the world is not black or white – it’s full of clashing colors, contradicting viewpoints that are often neither right nor wrong. And we can’t understand what to do about it all until we understand what is happening around us.

These days, I mostly make short documentary video stories. I’ve come to believe that the mix of images and sound can help us even better connect with what is happening in the lives of those around us. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I identify with Riis’s work so much: He was a photographer, a reporter and a writer. I have to employ all these skills, and then some, to produce video narratives.

Though video is hardly a new medium, I hope to experiment more and more with innovative tools, as Riis did with the flash, to tell stories in better ways. Ways that make people feel more, understand more, empathize more and connect more with one another.

Whitney Shefte is a Peabody, Emmy and Pictures of the Year International (POYi) Award-winning senior video journalist at The Washington Post, where she has worked since 2006. Whitney is also the visuals editor for Storyline.
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