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A Comparison of Jacob Riis and Ben Shahn Essay

The invention of photography changed the way that human beings interact with the world around them. Photographs have the power to force human beings to face the social conditions that plague the world. While photographs are certainly valuable for chronicling the important events in human life, it is even more important to use photographs to demonstrate human suffering and poverty in such a way that motivates people to work towards helping those in need.

Street Arabs in Sleeping Quarters by Jacob Riis shows the plight of homeless children while Children of the Rehabilitation Client by Ben Shahn shows the plight of poverty stricken children. There are important differences between the portrayal of poverty in Riss’s work and the portrayal of poverty in Shahn’s work. These two photographs will be analyzed and then compared and contrasted in an effort to document these social conditions in America. This analysis will include information about point of view, choice of subject and the inclusion and exclusion of certain details.

Street Arabs in Sleeping Quarters is one of a series of photographs that Jacob Riis took in order to show the social conditions of the less fortunate living in New York City. It is part of a photojournalism project that Riis undertook to show the horrible living conditions of certain parts of New York City. The painting shows three extremely skinny young boys sleeping in a church corner. They are dressed in tattered clothes are much too small for their growing bodies. As they sleep it becomes immediately noticeable how dirty they are as well as how miserable they appear even while asleep.

They are huddled together, possibly for warmth or possibly because they feel the need to hold onto some type of human contact that allows them to escape their poverty stricken lives. This painting paints a startling picture of life for children living on their own on the streets of New York City. Runaway children quickly learn to become tough and find the strength to fend for themselves. These children usually do not have an adult present in their lives to help them navigate the perils of growing up, much less growing up on the streets.

The photograph of the boys shows their helplessness through the expressions on their sleeping faces. However, the photograph, if one looks closely enough, shows the determination and strength these young boys possess in order to survive. It is apparent by the way they trust one another to huddle together while sleeping that these boys only have each other to depend on. They do not know a world with indoor plumbing, hot meals and warm places to sleep. Instead, they only know the honesty and loyalty they get from relying on one another.

The Farm Security Administration was created to help conquer the problem of poverty in America during the depression. A series of photographs were taken by staff within the Farm Security Administration in order to show the plights of the poverty stricken citizens of America. These photographs document the lives of the poor and provide evidence of how these people lived. The photographs are powerful statements that show the grit and determination of farmers as they try to hold onto their land despite a failing economy.

Further, these photographs are a lasting testament to the events of the Great Depression and allow this time in history to remain in the hearts of Americans. Children of Rehabilitation Client is one of these photographs and was taken by Ben Shahn. It shows two young children sitting on the porch of a rundown home. In contrast to Street Arabs in Sleeping Quarters, this photograph does not show the hopelessness of living on the streets in New York City. Instead, it shows the hope that American citizens held onto even while things were falling apart around them.

The boy sitting in the background has his hands up to his eyes as if he is watching something off in the distance. The boy sitting in the front of the photograph has a smirk on his face which suggests that whatever the boys are watching is delightful. However, despite this happiness and the fact that these boys have a home, unlike the boys in Street Arabs in Sleeping Quarters, they are still poverty stricken. The boys in Children of Rehabilitation Client, just like the homeless boys, are dirty and are wearing clothes that do not fit them.

However, they do not have the miserable looks on their faces that the street boys have. It can be assumed that since they are sitting on the porch of their own home that they also have a family that provides food and love. It is striking how examining the eyes and expressions of the subjects of photographs can provide direct evidence to the inner feelings of the people being portrayed. Therefore, while the street boys have very little hope for the future based on the fact that they were homeless and virtually alone in the world, the boys in this photograph at least have their hope for the future to hold onto.

Jacob Riis took his photograph from the point of view of someone watching the plights of homeless runaways in New York City. As sad as it is to admit, most people would not really notice these young boys sleeping wherever they can find a spot to rest. However, Riis took it upon himself to chronicle the living situations of these young runaways in such a way that forces humans to take notice of the abysmal living conditions of many children living in America. In this way, Riis is certainly able to educate the general public about the social conditions plaguing this population of Americans.

Similarly, Ben Shahn is also able to show the social conditions of a population of Americans. Shahn shows the living conditions of the poverty stricken American farmers during the Great Depression. He also chronicles poverty from the point of view of someone watching the negative aspects of life for other people. However, both photographers are able to allow humans a glimpse into the lives of the poor in America in such a way that the photos of poor children haunt viewers long after they have seen the photograph for the first time.

Both photographers chose children possibly because it is much harder for human nature to watch children suffering than any other group of people. Allowing humans a glimpse into the lives of poor children has the potential to impact the way that humans “see” a world in which they do not live but should be concerned with just the same. Similarly, it is possible that the photographers chose to focus solely on the children for much the same reason. Excluding surrounding details ensures that viewers of the photographs are able to focus on the children and their suffering rather than paying attention to smaller details.

Children of Rehabilitation Client is a good example. The viewer is not able to see what the boys are looking at but this allows the viewer to focus on the boys and really pay attention to how they are living. The most startling difference between these two photographs is the variation of poverty that is expressed. Street Arabs in Sleeping Quarters shows extreme poverty to the point of homelessness and the struggle to simply survive. Children of Rehabilitation Client also shows poverty but not the same levels as the homeless boys.

Poverty is a social problem that continues to plague the United States and these two photographs are two stunning examples of the different ways that children across the country are affected by the struggles of poverty. Ultimately, the photographers felt some sympathy for the subjects of these photos because they wanted to show the world the struggles that poor people face on a daily basis. From the struggles of homeless boys simply surviving to American families struggling to keep their farms, the photographers portray their subjects in such a way that allows viewers to be emotionally affected by what they see.

Finally, while Street Arabs in Sleeping Quarters shows the hopelessness of poverty, Children on Rehabilitation Client shows the hope that Americans were able to hold onto in the face of harsh circumstances. Riis wanted people to feel motivated to help those less fortunate while Shahn wanted to give hope to families who were also struggling to keep their farms. Riis, Jacob. (1890). Street Arabs in Sleeping Quarters. Retrieved on April 20, 2009 from http://www. authentichistory. com/postcivilwar/riis/chap17. html. Shahn, Ben. (1935). Children of Rehabilitation Client. Retrieved on April 20, 2009 from http://www. shorpy. com/node/320.

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