Presuming to judge another artist's ethics can be risky, but here goes…

Presuming to judge another artist’s ethics can be risky, but here goes.

Boingboing points to this blog post of Thomas Hawk, photographers’ rights activist, in which he writes on the photography of Jill Greenberg. In specific, her photos of children crying. Seems she admits that she manipulates the children into crying, doing things such as offering lollipops then taking them away. She provokes tears. Thomas Hawks believes this is unethical and damaging to the children. Some people agree and some people see no problem with it…all for the sake of art.

Me? I don’t like it. I can’t imagine doing this to H.o.p. or my nieces or nephews. I can’t imagine doing this to anyone’s child.

I have a photo of H.o.p. crying, which was taken during a profoundly out-of-control tantrum, but the photo was in context of the moment. In fact, it was taken to end the moment. Somehow I got the idea to ask if H.o.p. wanted me to take a picture of him. It was well over a year ago and somehow in the context of the tantrum it occurred to me that it was the just right thing to possibly do, that he may need to see himself as he was. He said yes, and I took the picture and he looked at it and the tantrum ended. It was a one time situation. I have kept the photo and occasionally have looked at it and thought it was, despite the circumstances, a beautiful picture of him, but it was a private situation and I don’t think H.o.p. would appreciate me turning it into art.

We didn’t have a videocamera when H.o.p. was young. Still don’t. But we borrowed one a couple of times and one of those times was to record H.o.p. walking around in his first real pair of shoes. He was 9 months old and was pulling himself up and walking using furniture as support. We were getting ready to go on the road and he needed, I figured, a good pair of shoes to help him in his attempts to walk. I thought they’d help stabalize him, thought they were help on the tour bus. So we got him his shoes and I put them on his little feet and I pulled out the borrowed videocamera to record the momentus event of his walking around in his shoes. I had this silly idea, like I said, the shoes would lend support. Instead, they hampered him. H.o.p. was attempting to walk toward me, using the sofa as support. At first he was excited, Marty was right behind him, and you can hear me talking to H.o.p. and he’s all smiles and happy. Then his features become perplexed, he’s becoming anxious. I am holding the camera still, recording him, and he’s becoming more exasperated, and finally it occurs to me that his shoes, those new shoes, they are hampering him, holding him back, and I mentioned something on camera about it, but I waited to do anything about it because I had the idea he would get used to them in a second and it would be a passing thing, that the shoes were good for him.

It rips my heart out every time I see that stupid video. I tell myself, “Put down that damn camera now and get those shoes off of him! He obviously doesn’t like them one bit. Why couldn’t you see that at the time?” It rips my heart out that I can’t go back and redo it, hand Marty the camera and take off those damn shoes.

We have another video of him when he was maybe about a month old and he was doing some damn cute things. We were borrowing the camera and were going to have to return it the next day so of course we wanted a movie of him. But whenever I pointed the camera at him he started crying and I would go, “Ooooh,” and cut the camera off and that would be it for the moment. A couple of weeks ago H.o.p. and I were watching that video (we did finally get some okay shots) and he started crying in it and, oh, that was my baby crying, and even as I, over eight years ago, cut off the camera, I had to reach over and give H.o.p a hug because that was my baby crying. “But, mom, I’m all right. That was me crying as a baby,” he said. And I said, “Yeah, I know but I still have to give you a hug.”

It’s not that those two times are an exception. I know I’ve injured H.o.p.’s feelings many times.

And it’s not that I’m unwilling to experience pain for art. Writing is hell for the most part. I put myself through a lot, writing. It isn’t fun. And I don’t just mean that writing is a pain. I mean it can be very painful emotionally, imagining situations for the story, putting yourself in that place and writing through it.

So my not liking that video of H.o.p. in which his shoes are hampering him isn’t because I don’t want to experience my own pain upon seeing this, but when I look I keep feeling those shoes weighing him down and he was feeling those shoes weighing him down and it was frustrating, it was confusing for him, he was just discovering walking and here he had on these confusing shoes, and it hurts watching the confusion on his face. I want to free him of it.

Okay. So let’s say you are the witness of a terrible event and you take a photo, say, of a child injured in war, sobbing, or a child witnessing the horrors of war and sobbing. If it rips out my own heart I can imagine showing this to other people with the hope it will stir sympathetic emotion and make them want to stop the pain, to stop the reason for that pain, just as when I’m watching that video of H.o.p. I want to yell, “Stop that camera and take off that boys’ shoes!” That’s one thing.

But, hell, setting up a child? Putting them in the studio, handing them a lollipop and then taking it away? May sound like nothing, but it is.

I showed H.o.p. the pics of the children crying. He asked what was going on. I told him that a woman takes pics of children crying and to make them upset she does things like offering them something and then taking it away. I asked H.o.p. what he thought about it. He looked a little unsure. I could see his brain telling him that he’s an artist and here I was asking him what he thought of what another artist was doing and this was causing a push-pull because he was having to think about what the artist did, not just the artist’s technique.

I said, no, really, what do you think about it, I want to know.

“I think it’s mean,” H.o.p. said.

I asked H.o.p. how he’d feel toward someone who did that.

“I wouldn’t trust them after that,” H.o.p. said.

Children are given many reasons to not trust. They happen every day. But as far as the child knows this is real life, it’s not an acting job, real emotion is being evoked and recorded, and that emotion is betrayal. It’s betrayal inspired by the artist. The object may be a simple little lollipop, but it is still betrayal, that child is in a situation of dependence upon the artist and it is a critical event for the child. Even if it is just a lollipop.

Jill’s husband says the child’s parents are present, that many are children of friends and are over for playdates and don’t seem the worse for wear. He says this is how it’s done inovies, in media. But the emotional life of a child is not utterly transparent, you may not know for another twenty years exactly how the child felt. And even then you may never know how the child really felt because the child may convince themselves along the way that it was all right. The adult said it was all right after all.

Uh, except I think it’s pretty transparent in these pics how the child did feel. Which is the point. Getting pics of those feelings of betrayal. That anguish.

I don’t think what Jill is doing is respectful of the child, don’t think it is respectful of the child as a person.

Jill Greenberg’s website is titled Manipulator. Posh site.

I don’t see a portfolio of Jill provoking adults to tears and rage. Why doesn’t she give it a go with consenting adults iinstead?

Update: A commentary on the art at Jill’s website states,

It will take two years to purge the photos of screaming children from her upcoming exhibition End Times from your head. The artist uses the wailing distress of the children as an allegory for the deepest fears of the human species as a whole and draws on the vocabulary of Christian millennialism, conspiracy theory culture and doomsday environmentalism to title the work. A redhead boy looking heavenward, his neck in a St. Sebastian pose, is titled, “nucular (sic)”. A girl emerging from her weeping looks to heaven for either hope or retribution in “Unless”. Sometimes titles synch with the pose, other times meaning is more oblique. Not only are the images compelling, but Greenberg burrows deep to extract difficult conversation about the current American moment.

C’mon. This is fucking lame. Like children’s emotions don’t belong to themselves and aren’t important in and of themselves but are just fodder for adults inclined to allegory. *That* is a problem, denying the honest emotion of the child in context and resculpting it into allegory. It’s just as much a problem as anything Jill may say she’s trying to expose. It’s dishonest.

Let me try that out on H.o.p., making him cry and then saying to him, “H.o.p., now you are allegory for the deepest fears of the human species”. See how that flies.

It won’t take two years to purge Jill’s photos from my head. But I’ll always remember the above lame excuse for attempting to provoke feelings in adults. And that, yes, is child abuse. Manipulating children, denying the reality of their emotions in order to provoke a certain feeling in adults, is indeed emotional abuse.

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Juli Kearns

Juli Kearns is the author of Thunderbird and the Ball of Twine and Unending Wonders of a Subatomic World (or) In Search of the Great Penguin. She is also an artist/photographer, and the person behind the web alter of "Idyllopus Press".

4 thoughts on “Presuming to judge another artist's ethics can be risky, but here goes…”

  1. According to Boing Boing, Greenberg and husband are trying to shut Hawks up by threatening to sue for libel. You’d think if they are calloused enough to be cruel to small children children for money, or art for that matter, that they wouldn’t be so thin-skinned. But I guess not.

    It’s interesting that the apologiae for Greenberg in Hawks’s comments section all resort more-or-less implicitly to the the romantic cult of the artist as Nietzschean ubermensch. Strange that this (you’d think) archaic religious system has survived intact, in all the arts, from the late 19th century through modernism and whatever chapter and verse of post-postmodernism we are living through now. Its persistence probably deserves some sort of attention.

  2. I have somewhat expanded and extensively digressed, in a post in my blog, on my comment here. Also linked to your post, and to some of the other blog entries you mention.

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