Pioneers of social realism in photography


The pioneers of social realism in photography

At the end of the 19th century, the photographers John Thomson, Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine understood that photography as a sociological document could intervene in society.

Cases of poverty, misery and exploitation, caused by industrialization and immigration in the USA and England, were thus denounced.

It was with them that the concept of social realism associated with photography was born.

Each of them followed a path in different areas of intervention.

These photographers thus contributed to exposing unknown social worlds that went unnoticed by the more privileged classes.

Social realism raised awareness of the poorest classes and their sociological problems.

John Thomson (1837-1921)

Pioneers of social realism John Thomson, 1871.

John Thomson, 1871. A sua obra assinala o inicio do realismo social na fotografia.


The documental work of Scotsman John Thomson (1837-1921) marks the beginning of social commitment and social realism in photography.

In 1873, Thomson published a work entitled Illustration of China and It’s People, the fruit of his long stay in China.

This documentary-style project, in which text and photography complement each other, was intended to be a social portrait of China, showing the country’s ethnic and cultural diversity.

The images he collected go beyond mere iconographic representation, showing a certain level of humanity.conservation of photography - online course

John Thompson passed through places where he captured the curiosity of many who allowed themselves to be photographed.

The gazes of beggars, vendors, monks, ministers of the empire, officials and mandarins were forever crystallized in his photographs.

With his eye trained during his trip to the Orient and back in London, Thomson began to record the social realism of people’s daily lives in their working environments and in the most diverse activities, addressing the conditions and their lifestyles.

In 1877, he published his photographs in a book entitled “Street Life in London”, with texts by journalist Adolphe Smith.

The photographs of disenfranchised individuals who tried at all costs to lead their lives through work, were intended to instill in society an awareness of the need for change.

Jacob Riis (1849-1914)

Pioneers of social realism Jacob Riis.Jacob Riis (1849-1914) was born in Denmark and emigrated to the USA.

One of the pioneers of social realism , he believed that through his photographs and denunciatory articles he could improve the situation of the needy who lived in the poor areas of New York.

His photographs were intended to shock, they were raw and aggressive, but faithful to reality.

Dirty children on the streets, mothers and children living in precarious conditions, beggars, unhealthy neighborhoods and the criminal underworld were constant in his work, which in black and white added to the drama.

The use of magnesium flash allowed him to reach poorly lit places.

Riis thus contributed to changing the mentality of the wealthier classes, who saw poverty as a social stigma. In 1890 he published the book How The Other Half Lives, which drew society’s attention to the precarious housing conditions of half the population of New York.

The book caused great repercussions and society mobilized to demand that the authorities mitigate these difficulties. Several housing estates were built with infrastructure, electricity and basic sanitation, as well as parks and leisure areas.

Being poor was an evil that could be overcome through education, employment, housing and health care.

Lewis Hine (1874-1940)

Lewis Hine.Lewis Hine (1874-1940) American sociologist turned photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, for which he worked for eight years.

He traveled around the United States to photograph the exploitation of children working in spinning mills, coal mines and on farms.

This resulted in two books on the subject: Child Labor in the Carolines and Day Laborers Before Their Time.

In these works, social realism and the essence of lost youth were imprinted on the sad and even angry faces of the children.

There was no artifice or deception in his photographs.

The whole process was natural and the result had to faithfully represent reality, without neglecting the aesthetics of the image, even though he often had to shoot with his camera hidden.

He openly and openly used his photographs as social realism, as weapons to raise public awareness, which contributed to the drafting of a labor protection law for minors.

With his photographs of immigrants arriving and leaving Ellis Island and working on the construction of the Empire State Buildings without protection, he succeeded in improving their living conditions.


John ThomsonJacob Riis and Lewis Hine

dedicated themselves intensely to social realism through social photography.

Their photographs sought to establish social realism – truth, objectivity and credibility.

With them, photography ceased to have a mere artistic function and began to convey a message and exert an influence on society, showing the world that images can change consciences.

In the history of photography, they are considered the pioneers of social realism

Bibliographical references

 BERNSTEIN, Len, What Do The World and People Deserve? in Photographica World -The Journal of

the Photographic Collectors Club of Great Britain, Number 98 -2001/4

BONI, Paulo César, O nascimento do fotodocumentarismo de denúncia sociale seu uso como “meio” para transformações na sociedade in Intercom – Sociedade Brasileira de Estudos Interdisciplinares da Comunicação XXXI Congresso Brasileiro de Ciências da Comunicação – Natal, RN, 2008.

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BOTAS, João, John Thomson: 1837 – 1921 in Macau Antigo, 2009

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CESALTINA, Pedro, Lewis Hine – Fotografia Documental, 2011

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DAVIS, Kay, Analysis of Riis Photographs and How the Other Half Lives in Documenting “The Other

Half” – The Social Reform Photography of Jacob Riis & Lewis Hine.

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FRIZOT, Michael, Nouvelle Histoire de la Photographie, Bordas / Adam Biro, 1994.

HOY, Anne H., The Book of Photography: The History, The Technique, The Art, The Future,                                     

      National  Geographic – Washington, D.C. , 2005.

ROSENBLUM, Naomi, A World History of Photography, Abbeville Press – Publishers, 1997.

SOUGEZ, Marie-Loup, História da Fotografia, Dinalivro, 2001.

 The History Place – Child Labor in America 1908 – 1912, Photographs of Lewis Hine.

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The Photographs of John Thomson in National Library of Scotland

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