Jacob Riis, the influential photographer of nineteenth century New York, is not simply know for being among the first to use flash powder in photography, allowing him to penetrate the dark spaces of the tenement housing and lodgings, and to record the living conditions of the poor and emigrants. He is also known for influencing, as well as being supported by a class of influential people, and would be politicians of the time, giving birth to political movements that will change drastically the legislation on welfare, and urban landscape of New York.
It is well known the support Theodore Roosevelt gave to him. It is said that right after he read Jacob Riis’s book “How the Other Half Lives “, a written and photographic descriptions of the slums of New York , he called him and said: “I have read your book. How can I help?” It is also this book, and other efforts following it, which will later lead to the tenement housing reform put forward by the progressive movement in New York.Children sleeping in Mulberry Street, Jacob Riis, 1890
It has to be noted that, before Riis published his book, he raised the issues in the New York Sun, in articles with the hand drawn illustrations of his photographs, which didn’t draw the attention that the book captured thanks to photographic illustrations. I would say that there were two major factors leading to its recognition; the medium of photography, and the existence of open minded political and social elite. Despite of the importance of the media, which certainly helped to bring the issue alive, especially to those in higher society that would never pay a visit to their poor fellow citizens, one might argue that is the sensibility on the part of the same elite, that will embrace the critique, coming in this case from the investigative journalism (or muckrakers as Roosevelt himself would label them), in the name of progress. Political movements such as the Progressives, led by Roosevelt, or other reformist movement, will reshape drastically the urban landscape, not only of New York but even of America; reforms that will stretch well until 30-s and 40-s under La Guardia’s administration as the mayor of New York and to politics of New Deal.
I was reminded of all these when I learned that Bevis Fusha’s work, an Albanian photographer that documents the lives of the people in Albanian slums around the largest metropolis Tirana and Durres, is featured in the Word Press Photos publication “New Stories”. The similarities of Fusha’s work, with the work of Riis some 120 years ago, are not simply in the medium of photography. Although not comparable on the impact and recognition, they still resemble considerably on the subject. The same as New York at that time, Albanian metropolis has experienced recently an unprecedented growth, as people from other regions inside the country, among the poorest rural areas, have moved to peripheries of Tirana and Durres, giving birth to a new phenomenon for Albanian post-communist cities, the slums. I have to confess that as much as I know from Fusha’s work, I wouldn’t recognized it simply as the documentation of the slums on the periphery; either because, even when he is documenting the center of the city, he is not interested of capturing the spectacle of the city – although he always tries to maintain certain aesthetics – or because the conditions on the center, in cases, have deteriorated so much that you wouldn’t distinguish them from the slums. Nevertheless, different from the work of Riis, Fusha’s work doesn’t seem to have the same support today in Albanian political elite as Riis’s had, in spite of relatively similar important issues. One might argue that the medium of photography is not anymore a novelty and doesn’t enjoy the exclusivity of the image it had on the time of Riis. Yet, the fact that the work is recognized by a prestigious international media seems to compensate for them. Most probably one has to look on the Albanian political and social landscape for the reason on the lack of support to Fusha’s work. There is no secret that the Albanians politics and its base social support is, in most cases, unapproachable and close to criticism. In this case, for politicians as well as for a large part of public opinion, that are seizing this moment of relative stability on the region to promote Albania’s touristic resources, or simply to improve the tarnished image of the country, the work of Fusha is not very welcomed. For them, rather than a work that brings sensibility to a very grave welfare social problem, it is another counterproductive add, among the positive advertisements – that promote tourism in Albania as the latest undiscovered pristine resort in the Mediterranean – on CNN and other major western medias, not to mention that endorsing it, implies that something has to be done. In spite of the political will, we all forget (ironically) that it is through the support and the embracement of criticism that the sociopolitical systems, theoretically, are supposed to benefit the most. Even so – till the time comes that the theory will be put to practice – one still is waiting for the one politician to call Fusha and say: “I have read your book. How can I help?”