Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Fuss & Bother

There has been a lot of fuss and bother over photographer Jill Greenberg's series of children's portraits entitled 'End Times' recently. The photos of very young children in distress (caused by her taking away their lollipops) have made her the target of a number of unpalatable and aggressive comments.

She is taking babies, toddlers under three years old, stripping them of their clothes and then provoking them to various states of emotional distress, anger, rage etc. -- so that she can then take photos of them this way to "illustrate her personal beliefs." If you'd like to see how worked up she can get these kids you can click through here. Be warned that it is graphic. Although the children are not sexualized, I consider what she is doing child pornography of the worst kind.
- Thomas Hawk's Digital Connection

I believe that the moral dimension of "End Times" cannot be ignored, and that an artist need not profit from societal objections to their work if those objections are sound and widely shared. I further believe that Jill Greenberg's work should not be viewed through the art-historical lens of edgy, contemporary art, but is instead a cultural hiccup that should be shelved with divisive cultural artifacts like black minstrelry, art involving the physical abuse of animals, and other works that reflect a sensibility so alien that it is better approached not as art, but as the fractured product of a diseased mind or a necrotic culture. - Jeremiah McNichols
Some commentators have labelled her a torturer, others have hinted that she is a child abuser and perhaps worse. Usually when people exhibit these levels of hostility, they are being driven by an emotional rather than a rational impulse. Such people usually develop a self sustaining and gratifying positive feedback loop fuelled by their own tirade of anger and abuse and blow things out of all sense of proportion. I think that this case is a perfect example of that behaviour.

Having seen the photographs myself I think that they are quite interesting. Portraits of children usually portray them as 'little angels' or 'cheeky devils' and usually don't elicit much of an emotional response in the viewer other than 'ooh; isn't that cute'.

These are very different from the normal candy floss, saccharin examples of children's photographs that are usually displayed. They show other equally valid and very common emotions that children display.

The fact that the photographer had to set up the conditions under which the children would show this emotion is perhaps the only point in the whole process that could be considered to be objectionable, but as the parents of the children did not object and the cause of the distress was such a slight everyday occurrence.

I don't think that after a few minutes thought any balanced individual or parent would make a serious objection to the technique used. It is very common for young children to get upset numerous times a day for all sorts of seemingly silly reasons.

Yesterday I saw a child in a complete tantrum, screaming and crying over the fact that it was time for him to go home from the playground! I didn't see any other parents hurling abuse at the parent of the child, it was simply a child's emotional response to not getting what he wanted. If any emotional response was present in the other parents it was one of empathy for the parent of the unbelievably loud, tantrum throwing child.

It just isn't possible to apply an adult emotional context to the levels of 'distress' displayed in the photographs. Firstly because they have been digitally manipulated to make them appear more distressing, and secondly because in the context of a child's emotional landscape the level of distress required to trigger the response displayed is actually very low.

The fact of the matter is that the kids that Jill Greenberg photographed (including one of her own) will have forgotten all about it (and probably did so within five minutes of the photographs being taken, and being given back their candy) and are getting on with the business of being kids, should be enough of a hint to any reasonable adult that there is no real issue to debate.



Blogger Sam said...

I think the pictures are great - I can't see how people could infer child pornography out of them, I'd suggest a quiet period of introspection.

The pictures themselves are fascinating - as you say, they're completely different from your average 'baby on a fluffy rug' photo. I don't agree/understand what she's getting at with the titles of the photos, criticising the Bush administration, though.

As for abuse, my understanding from the Sunday Times was that it was the parents themselves taking the lollipops away.

People are strange.

30/8/06 09:28  

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