When we try to imagine the conditions of the British poor during the industrial revolution it is the words of Dickens, Owen or Engels that provide us with the imagery to convey the cramped squalor and terrible poverty they endured.
But as early as the mid-19th century, the new medium of photography was being used by journalists and social reformers to reveal the plight of the working classes.
In 1890 the Dutch journalist Jacob Riis published How The Other Half Lives, his photographs of New York’s Lower East Side slums where 340,000 people lived crammed into a single square mile. In 1902 the American author Jack London came to London and, spurred on by the socialist instincts his difficult upbringing had inspired in him, pursued a similar project.
Posing in a common man’s clothes as a runaway American sailor, London spent six weeks in the slums of the East End, living with and suffering the same privations as her inhabitants. His experiences became The People of the Abyss, published in 1903, a searing journalistic portrayal of the conditions of the urban poor.
Less well known are the photographs London took of the workless, homeless poor – the workhouse, the doss-house, the Salvation Army barracks, or “carrying the banner”; tramping through the night half-starved looking for food or shelter, prevented by the police from stopping on the street, only to resume the futile search for work the following morning, whether or not sleep had been snatched in a doorway or park bench.
The remarkable images show frankly and without sentiment the drawn faces of men queuing for a free meal, women huddled in all their clothes on park benches, or the pitiful sight of figures sprawled across Green Park, soaked to the skin and exhausted. They could be dismissed as images from a different age with different values, until one stops to consider that such sights are not uncommon today.
These and many photographs from London’s other travels have been hardly seen in a century, but are collected in Jack London: Photographer, published by the University of Georgia Press last month. One of the book’s authors, photographic archivist Philip Adam – a native of San Francisco like Jack London – experienced his own brush with homelessness after being laid off in 2003.
“They had hired me ‘without benefits’ – not as full-time staff, without the protections that provides,” Adam said. “There were homeless people sleeping in our doorway – you’d literally walk over bodies to get to work in the morning – so I started photographing the homeless people in San Francisco. I was a working professional without security, and I thought, there but for the grace of god go I, because there’s not much difference between someone working like that and someone homeless and down on their luck.”
Having lost his studio with the job, after 30 years in San Francisco Adam left town. “I’ve been homeless ever since, though friends and people who know me have been very generous, so I’ve not been out on the street,” he added.
In an effort to make San Francisco’s chronic homeless problem less visible, the city council are to criminalise loitering on park benches or doorsteps. With the echoes of the punitive measures taken against the poorest and most desperate members of society in 1903 still ringing in 2003, a century after London’s photographs were taken the precarious nature of work and the capricious attitude of governments toward the unfortunate remain powerful dividing forces between the haves and have-nots.
[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, November 2010]