Lodgeters in a crowded Bayard Street tenement, 1889. (Jacob A. Riis, Museum of the City of New York)
Art, and our participation in it, changes our lives. At Near West Theatre, we have a unique rehearsal process and make an intentional choice to work on shows about social justice and action. NWT is the place that joins art and justice, activating the protestor, lobbyist, or change-agent inside us all. Our production of Disney’s Newsies was a powerful example of how art and justice can be a way to shed light on the Newboys Strike of 1899.
Many of us take to the streets, the polls, or to Capitol Hill to fight for what is right. The passion we feel as activists often exposes just how unjust something is. Exposing injustices is an important step to making lasting change.
Jacob Riis helped to expose the unjust living and working conditions of New Yorkers during the time of Newsies. When Jacob Riis moved to New York City from Denmark in 1870, he quickly noticed that his living conditions were all too common. Living in cramped and broken-down tenement housing, poor residents were exposed to disease and starvation, often working many jobs to survive.
After holding multiple jobs, Riis started working for a newspaper and used his talents as a photographer and journalist to expose the harsh living conditions that he was all too familiar with.
Known as one of the most famous social reformers of the nineteenth century, Jacob Riis was a Danish-American journalist known for using art to leverage social action. His book, “How The Other Half Lives” is a provoking work of photojournalism that uses images of poor living conditions in New York City in the 1880’s. Find more images here.
Art and Activism: Closer to Home
As part of The Gund Foundation 2017 Annual Report titled “Art as Political Activism”, New York based photographer Accra Shepp captures images of Cleveland arts organizations that don’t shy away from activism in their work. Complex and striking, the images bring a whole new meaning to exposure. They capture participants and owners of the arts organizations in their environment.
The Gund Foundation provides access to resources that allow Cleveland organizations to thrive. It is by this financial leverage that the activism these organizations exist within can remain sustainable and lasting.
Whether you live in 1890’s New York working to expose the harsh living and working conditions of the poor, or using photography to highlight the political power of area arts organizations in 2018, the shock of exposure empowers us.
Art has the power to inspire us, change us, and even expose us. Often it is the issues that impact us personally that fuel lasting activism. We can use our talents – photography, acting, singing, listening, writing – to expose a social injustice that is close to our hearts.
Find more photos of Jacob Riis’ work here.