The Fine Artist’s Dilemma

Jill Greenberg ‘Shock’ (2006)
Jill Greenberg ‘Shock’ (2006)

Jill Greenberg is an American photographer famous for her ‘fine art’ studio portraits. Her work is relatively unique due to her elaborate use of a ‘painting with light technique’ when editing her images. This effect generally works best with exaggerated facial expressions, which led to the production of her most controversial work End Times. For this series the photographer requested that parents bring their children into her studio in order for her to capture them in mid tantrum . The children then had their upper bodies stripped naked and were coaxed into fits of trauma. To do this Greenberg asked the parents to present the children with gifts or sweets which were then taken away, or the children were told that they were being punished for being naughty. When the child eventually broke out into a state of hysterics Greenberg would begin to photograph. Since the publication of this work the photographer has received much criticism from curators, reviewers and writers both within and outside the industry. Claims were made against her that the children were being exploited and abused for the sake of art. The most aggressive criticism came from the now infamous photography blog writer Thomas Hawk:

Although the children are not sexualized, I consider what she is doing child pornography of the worst kind.” Thomas Hawk (2006:1)



The Sunday Times Magazine cover asks "A photographer steals sweets from children and captures their reactions. Is it art or abuse?"
The Sunday Times Magazine cover asks “A photographer steals sweets from children and captures their reactions. Is it art or abuse?”

The purpose behind this body of work was to illustrate the sea of controversial and worrying current political affairs in America, including the re-instatement of the far from popular president George Bush and the dangerous influence of the evangelical religious right. The children’s facial expressions are used as a personification of the population’s mutual dismay. Despite the political context of her work and the righteousness of her motives, the photographer has become the victim of several accusations ranging from exploitation of minors to child abuse of a sexual nature. However Greenberg has not allowed this criticism to dampen her career success and her statements of defence are equally if not more so convicting:

“ It didn’t even occur to me that people might think that. A lot of the people who’ve been upset are men. I don’t know if it’s because they project their own desires on these images and they don’t know what to do with them and blame me.” Jill Greenberg (2006:31)

This raises the question: how much of our judgement of images stems from our own personal construction and arguably suppressive personalities? Every individual has a varying degree of ethical consideration, which is influenced by all manners of social development. The freedom to make statements about the ethicality of images exists primarily on the basis that there is some kind of union to back up these critiques. In this sense ethics are measured in quantity, if there is a considerable amount of belief in any humanitarian guideline then it may be labelled as ethical. Only when the constructs of these belief groups are examined can one begin to defend against such accusations. Similarly to Susan Sontag’s condemnation of the male species, which stems from Virginia Woolf’s dialogue with a male lawyer around various images of warfare[1], Greenberg makes her case against the masculine interpretation of her images. This critique can be backed up by the psychoanalytic theory of repression as a defence mechanism whereby one’s present behaviour may be explained through suppressed memories or feelings that often cause hypocrisy through the action itself (Freud, 1989). For instance Freud would argue that those who criticise the sexual nature of a photograph are defending themselves from the reality of their own sexual desires. Is there a limit or a boundary when it comes to constructing photographs? Or are we all just afraid of what we might learn about ourselves?

[1] “Men make war. Men (most men) like war, since for men there is “some glory, some necessity, some satisfaction in fighting” that women (most women) do not feel or enjoy. What does an educated — read: privileged, well off — woman like her know of war? Can her recoil from its allure be like his?” Susan Sontag (2003:1)

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