Cry babies and bloggers

Jill Greenberg slagged off the bloggers. They apparently have too much time on their hands, because why else would anyone, looking at the photos in her latest exhibition, End Times, at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, reach the conclusion that she was a monster who had abused the children who were her subjects?

Thomas Hawk thought she should be arrested and charged with child abuse. Jeremiah McNichols weighed in then from a visual arts perspective.

The curator, Paul Kopeikin, is complaining about the hate mail and Greenberg has made it all the way to BBC podcasts in what is, without any doubt, an advertising coup for her exhibition and her career as an artist. At last—she can now breathe a sigh of relief—she is famous, and her photographs are, if Kopeikin’s suggestions can be believed, walking out the door. And there won’t be any police enquiries into child abuse—not unless there are some facts we don’t yet know about, or perhaps the parents of the cry babies have some startling revelation about the unauthorised use of electrodes.

Greenberg pointed out in interviews broadcast by the BBC that babies cry all the time, at the drop of a hat, so to speak, and stop crying just as quickly. Babies cry, she told us, because lollypops have been taken away from them. In fact, that is how she got many of the babies in her photographs to blubber: she took their lollies away from them. When that didn’t work, and some other method was needed, the childrens’ parents were taken out of the room.

Before looking closely at these photographs—they claim to be art, after all, so we must look closely at them—there is one more thing I think it is important to note about this exhibition: Jill Greenberg has already told us what it means. I heard her talking about the meaning of the photographs before I had seen them. When she reminded me that children cry very easily, I felt sympathy for her position immediately. (She is being accused of child abuse, which is a serious thing to say about anyone.) A striking thing about the conversation, though, was the completely straightforward manner of telling us what the photographs mean.

Jill Greenberg wants to show us how upset these two and three year old children would be if they “realised the world they would inherit” (BBC Radio Newspod 27/7/2006). She feels upset, herself, about the environmental policies of George Bush, and is ‘depicting’ this distress through pictures of children that are upset. Greenberg has two children herself, a one year old and a three year old, so, naturally, she’s been thinking about these issues. The photographs were taken with the permission and co-operation of the children’s’ mothers; so there seems to be no question that, if Jill Greenberg was abusing these children, we are bound to hear about it from someone closer to the crime than the bloggers who want to put Greenberg away. Greenberg takes several swipes at the bloggers, saying of them that they obviously have too much time on their hands, that they hide behind a screen of anonymity, and have been careless with her reputation while putting nothing of their own at risk. (Or words to that effect.)

The question of the treatment of the subjects during the photographic session threatens to derail the stated artistic objective of the pictures, possibly because the stated artistic objective of the photographs is weak. It really is striking and ironic that in an age of very sophisticated understanding of art theory it should seem acceptable that a photographer-artist tells us what her photographs mean. Possibly it is just because we do not have direct access to the intentions of artists that they must now tell us what they mean. It is even stranger, really, that having heard what the photographer tells me the photographs mean, I don’t believe her—and, actually, I think, the meaning of the pictures is, at least as stated, more than a little bit silly. Greenberg cuts the legs from under the theorem she posits about her own pictures by immediately attempting to demystify the childrens’ apparent agonies. Children will cry about anything, and can cry almost all the time, so we shouldn’t be worried. Greenberg took their lollies away from them and, if that didn’t work, she took their mothers away from them.

In truth, we are being asked to suspend our disbelief for a little while, and consider what a child might do, how a child might behave, if it had an understanding of what its parent’s generation was doing to the world in which it had to live. Very specifically, the meaning of the photographs is a kind of joke: this is how we should react, Jill Greenberg seems to be saying to us, when we hear that the American military apparatus is torturing prisoners in Guantanamo Bay; and the appearance of the crying child in the photograph entitled ‘Torture’ is merely the weak, almost irrelevant, punch-line of the joke. We look at the poor girl’s face, the corner of her mouth falling off her face, and read the title—’Torture’ or whatever is underneath the next photograph on the wall—the same lame joke repeating itself over and over again.

It’s very strange, then, to be confronted with both a claim about the photographs in End Times and an obvious truth about the same photographs that are completely incompatible.

The children in End Times are presented to us in much the same way as the apes of Greenberg’s previous exhibition. Each child seems to be positioned carefully in front of a bluish, neutral screen, lit so that it is whiter at the centre. The children are lit like commercial objects, their skin and hair displaying a tremendously effective sheen, as though they’ve really been polished up for presentation to the camera. Some of the children have great rivers of tears flowing down their cheeks. Some look a bit dry. They are all, of course, without their lollies or mothers, a bit emotional; and Greenberg appears to have done a good job capturing the great variety of expressions that have enabled her to label the photographs so creatively. I can’t say that I laughed out loud when I read the titles, so perhaps the titles are meant to be amusing in the ‘Oh, that is deep, yes, how could anyone disagree with those sentiments’ sense, rather than the ‘O, God, please make it stop—I’m laughing so much it hurts’ sense. Greenberg has managed to keep the children positioned for the camera with great effectiveness, just as she did with the apes. Perhaps there is a technique she hasn’t let on? Were they (the kiddies or the apes) restrained in some way?

Most importantly, the sympathetic impulse one feels when seeing these pictures is qualitatively no different to the impulse one feels when seeing any child cry. There is nothing in the photographs about the state of the planet’s ecology, about the betrayal of public trust. Nothing whatsoever. There is just the title, hanging limply off the bottom of the image.

The children in End Times do not look like they are contemplating a terrifying legacy or some ineluctable, depressing future. Actually, they look like young children who have been bitch-slapped by a photographer. They look like exactly what they are.

Just in case you haven’t caught my drift, here is a truly disturbing photograph, taken in 1990 by James Nachtwey, of a child confined to a filthy cot in a Romanian orphanage for ‘incurables’:

Child in a Romanian orphanage, photograph by James Nachtwey (1990).
Child in a Romanian orphanage, photograph by James Nachtwey (1990).

What art there is in this picture has been put to the service of underlining the horror of its subject’s predicament.

Looking at a picture of this kind, we do not sense that there is any trail of evidence leading from the child’s cry to the photographer. The photographer is irrelevant. Instead, we immediately find ourselves standing in the place of the camera, while very basic impulses rush to the front of our minds.

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