In the late 19th century, progressive journalist Jacob Riis photographed urban life in order to build support for social reform. Riis also wrote descriptions of his subjects that, to some, sound condescending and stereotypical. In this lesson, students look at Riis’s photographs and read his descriptions of subjects to explore the context of his work and consider issues relating to the trustworthiness of his depictions of urban life.
[Materials significantly revised 5/24/17.]


This lesson was great! It was great to juxtapose a student's idea of progressive thought with the reading excerpts rife with ethnic stereotypes. One correction I would make is that the description of the photographs offers incorrect information about late 19th century photographic methods. While subjects sitting for Daguerreotypes earlier in the century would have had to sit still for longer exposures, subsequent methods popularized by the 1860's reduced exposure times to just a few seconds. By the 1880's an outdoor photograph would likely have taken less than a second to expose.
As a hook for this lesson I make photo copies of 10 of Riis' more powerful photos and have the students do a photo close read before we read passages from the book. We talk a lot about the difference between posed and spontaneous photos and if that makes a difference in how we view Jacob's work.
Hi marykate87 - Glad to hear our materials are useful to you! Thank you for pointing out the erroneous title. The lesson has been updated with the proper title.
Overall I am a fan of this lesson! I always have to modify SHEG a fair amount for my 8th graders, but less than usual with this one. It gives kids a look into living conditions, provides an opportunity to introduce them to muckrakers while giving them a critical lens through which to critique Progressives of the time in a nuanced way. Something that I noticed as I am teaching a version of this lesson a second time around: according to the edition of How the Other Half Lives that I have, the photo here titled "A growler gang in session" is actually "Members of the gang showing how they 'did the trick.' " The next photo in the book is a "growler gang in session [the "Montgomery Guards at the West 37 Street dock]"
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