Jacob Riis



Use the photograph and background information to answer the question that follows.


This photograph, titled “Tramp in Mulberry Street Yard,” was taken by Jacob Riis around 1887. The image shows a man sitting in front of a dilapidated shack in Mulberry Bend, one of the most dangerous areas of the notorious Five Points neighborhood in New York City.  Riis took many photographs of poor immigrants living in dangerous and crowded apartments called tenements. He hoped his photos would convince others to support housing reform.

Additional facts related to Riis’s photograph:
1. Riis was born decades after the camera was invented. 
2. Riis reported that he paid the man 10 cents to sit for the portrait. 
3. Riis had worked a variety of odd jobs before becoming a photographer.  
4. Riis referred to this man as a “tramp”, an insulting term for a homeless person at the time. 

Question:  Which 2 of the 4 facts above might cause you to question the reliability of Riis’s photograph as evidence of what living conditions were like in tenements at the time? 

About the Assessment

Like the Unions in Paterson, New Jersey assessment, this question gauges whether students can source and contextualize a document. Students must first examine a photograph by Jacob Riis and then determine which facts might help them evaluate the reliability of the photograph. Strong students will be able to explain how the fact that Riis paid the man to sit for the photograph indicates that the photograph was posed or staged (Fact 2) and the fact that Riis used a derogatory term to describe the man (Fact 4) could indicate a lack of respect that affected how he chose to portray him.