He changed the life of immigrants in America – and now he has his own museum in Ribe
TEXT: HEIDI KOKBORG | PHOTOS: JACOB A. RIIS MUSEUM/MUSEUM OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK
MAIN PHOTO: JACOB A. RIIS IN NEW YORK. PHOTO: NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION
Jacob A. Riis moved to New York in 1870 and became a pioneer in photojournalism. His book, How the Other Half Lives, documented the horrible living conditions in the New York City slums in the 1880s and has had a major social impact on America.
Jacob A. Riis is a man with a fascinating story. In 1870, when he was 21 years old, he moved from Ribe in southern Denmark, to New York City, with just 40 dollars to his name. The girl he loved did not love him back, and so he decided to head for the land of opportunity. Despite arriving heartbroken and penniless, he became close friends with Theodore Roosevelt and became one of the most famous and recognised men in America.
“He was poor, but he had a will of steel, and he did not take no for an answer. His motto was ‘never give up’,” says Flemming Just, museum director at Museum of Southwest Jutland. Riis got a job as a criminal reporter in the Lower East Side’s slum, and he started accompanying his writing with photos. This made him a pioneer within photo journalism. Among the immigrants in the Lower East Side, he documented child labour, awful living conditions, hunger, corruption and crime.
As relevant as ever
“Between 1890 and 1918, people started recognising that living conditions, child labour, healthcare and labour conditions needed to be regulated. With his book, How the Other Half Lives, he became one of the best-known social reformers of his time. His book is said to be among the five books that have contributed the most to social change in America,” explains Just.
Jacob A. Riis Museum is not a memorial house. It is a museum about his work and how he made a significant difference in America, and why he is as relevant today as he was when he was alive. “The themes Riis focused on are very important today – immigration, child labour, national identity and assimilation. His pictures and stories are therefore just as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago, and we are excited to share them with Danish as well as international visitors,” says Just.
Jacob A. Riis Museum opened on 29 June 2019. The Museum is part of Museum of Southwest Jutland.
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