End Times

Review of ‘End Times’

‘End Times’ is a 2006 collection of 32 individual photos taken by Jill Greenberg, based around capturing the primitive feelings of children.  These photos contain full face depictions of crying children in their natural, naked state.  Greenberg then named each photo according to their portrayed emotion. There was also a political influence behind the set of photos, specifically the election of George. W. Bush to a new term in office (2002).

Greenberg used a number of children (aged between two and four) to create a set of powerful and disturbing images.  By using the ‘baiting’ method, Greenberg staged the photographs by taking away a lollipop which their mum had given them earlier.  She then captured the reaction by making numerous ‘snapshot’ of each child’s face.  As Greenberg herself stated, “nothing is more pure than the anguish of a child”[1], displaying what she wanted to achieve.  The honesty of a child’s feelings is undeniable, hence why Greenberg chose to photograph children.  By capturing the raw emotion of an upset child Greenberg aimed to reflect a wider global issue of political mistrust.  Taking her influence from the works of Bill Moyers, particular his essay entitled ‘There is no tomorrow’, Greenberg displays her anger towards the actions of politicians:  fore mostly, the rise of the Christian right as a political force, the war in Iraq and the destruction of the environment[2].  Subsequently, Greenberg created these photos to highlight her concerns that the future would be painful but most significantly a photo’s “relation to the world”[3] – how these photos make a wider impression on the world through Greenberg.  Thus, the exhibition indicated the “pain of the children as a precursor of what is to come”[4] yet challenges the idea that photography is a document of the presently in front of the camera, but represents a “space to imagine the future”[5] – they give an insight to a future of anguish.  However, these photos have caused controversy in the public eye, deeming Greenberg a “child abuser”[6], hence raising ethical questions about the exhibition.  Interestingly, the same idea can be indicated by Sontag that a photograph “violates”[7] the subject and acts as an experience, making it a long-standing debate.

Looking a few of the photos in depth, the portrait entitled ‘Victory’, struck me as particularly emotive.  The girl showed severe signs of distress and suffering with a tearstain face and dishevelled hair as though nothing could console her, much like two other photographs:  ‘The End’ and ‘Shock.  Although both share similar indicators of suffering, they differ in that the child is looking away from the camera attempting to hide from reality almost suggesting why is this happening to me? Therefore, looking from a wider context the creases on their face illustrate the anguish, dismay and apprehension Greenberg had when George Bush achieved another term in office.  What intrigued me more about ‘Victory’ was the contrast between the smoothness of the girl’s skin and the alarming contortion of her face, creating a paradox between what we physically observe and what is her reality.  As with all of the photographers the child is naked, suggesting the primal, raw state of the child with nothing to hide, allowing the viewer to “participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability [and] mutability”[8]  This could also be perceived as extremely traumatic, stripping them to their bare selves as if shedding their personality, revealing the self as a unique entity.  However, the name of the photograph ‘Victory’ confused me somewhat.  It seemed extremely odd and verging on cruel to describe a photo of a child crying as victorious. She took “a normal child crying and amplify[ed] it into a crazed, painful portrait of sadness that you can’t take your eyes off”[9] further highlighting the huge impact of her photos.  Nevertheless, when the motives behind Greenberg’s exhibition are discussed, it was her view that the child crying represented her hostility towards the current political philosophy – in other words, the politicians had succeeded in causing misery.  As Garry Winogrand stated, “the true business of photography is to capture a bit of reality”[10] and Greenberg wanted to illustrate her bit of reality for the world to see.

The history of portraiture could hold great influence on Greenberg’s interpretations.  The idea of the ‘living photo’ resonates through this exhibition, much like the works of Barthes.  For him, all photographs were personal and intimate as he looked for the living spirit if his dead mother – “there was always a place set apart, reserved and preserved”[11] thus supporting Greenberg’s indication that “photographs are living and not dead”[12], almost as if there were a visual code connecting to the public’s rationale which Greenberg uses to her advantage.  Furthermore, the style of Nadar correlated well with Greenberg’s photos; Nadar used the camera as an artistic tool to capture the truth of the face as an artistic personality.  Furthermore, Robinson considered the creative effect of photographs.  He then suggested that “every change in the definition of an object means a change in our emotion about it”[13] and this could be the case with Greenberg who used the object (the child) to evoke a reaction from the viewer.  Robinson could also explain why Greenberg chose crying children to photograph by inferring that “the realism of the moment appears to select ugliness by preference”[14] so we (as the public), are more likely to look again at unpleasant photos eg.  the atrocities in the Vietnam War.  From a photographic point of view, the strong lighting and heaving post-processing could parallel the works of Terry Richardson (a Hollywood celebrity photographer), who aims to surprise with his dramatic interpretations of artists to express their inner selves on a public scale, much like Greenberg. However Richardson received a much warmer reaction from the public to Greenberg.  Most likely this is because Richardson uses willing celebrities who have chosen to be photographed as opposed to children who do not have the freedom to choose, raising more ethical questions of Greenberg’s work and whether it was appropriate to be seen publicly exhibited.  Bachelard described how the children themselves might be affected emotionally by suggesting that “even a minor event in the life of a child is an event of that child’s world and thus a world event”[15], explaining how a small event can be expanded to worldly proportions to a child.  However, as Reid stated, “many of the kids played it up, melodrama in overdrive and Jill was there to capture it all,”[16] disproving the theory of Greenberg being unethical.  Greenberg’s photos interestingly, have also been used as a form of political satire, proving they are more than just the photographic image.

Overall, the exhibition of crying children portraits reflected the inner turmoil of a politically aware photographer who aimed to evoke her personal emotion and anger through using the naked portraits of raw, vulnerable children.  Whilst many would find this a disturbing and demeaning occupation, I think once you understand the depth of her political belief, you understand her work is an act of defiance against political authority to protect the children of our
future.

victory shock the end


[1] Jill Greenberg, ‘End Times’, (Spain, 2012), pg. C01

[2] Greenberg, (2012), pg.  A07

[3] Susan Sontag, On Photography, (Great Britain, 1978) pg.  4

[4] Greenberg, (2012), pg. C01

[5] Wombell P in Greenberg J, ‘End Times’ (Spain, 2012) pg.  A09

[7] Sontag, On Photography, pg.  14

[8] Sontag, On Photography, pg.  15

[9] Chris Reid, Jill Greenberg:  It’s not like Taking Candy from a Baby, http://fullym.com/photographer-gives-kids-candy-takes-it-away-then-photographs-their-reactions/ accessed 20th January 2014

[10] Gary Winogrand , http://www.photography.about.com accessed 4th January 2014

[11] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (France, 1981) pg.  27

[12] Greenberg, (2012) pg.  A11

[13] H Robinson, Idealism, Realism, Expressionism in Alan Trachtenberg, Classic Essays on Photography (USA, 1980) pg.  92

[14] Robinson, Idealism, Realism, Expressionism, pg.  95

[15] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Great Britain, 1994) pg.  145

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