Jill Greenberg created portraits of crying children in 2006 to reflect her frustration with the politics of the Bush era.
“The most dangerous fundamentalists aren’t just waging war in Iraq; they’re attacking evolution, blocking medical research and ignoring the environment,” she wrote in a statement. “It’s as if they believe the apocalyptic End Time is near, therefore protecting the earth and future of our children is futile. As a parent I have to reckon with the knowledge that our children will suffer for the mistakes our government is making. Their pain is a precursor of what is to come.”
But criticism of her series, “End Times,” hasn’t focused on Greenberg’s political views. Instead, it has focused on the crying faces in the photographs, prompting accusations that Greenberg abused the children to get them to show emotion.
“It’s upsetting to get emails sort of randomly saying I’m a horrible person,” Greenberg said. “I have two children of my own. Crying is not evidence of pain or any real suffering. It’s really just the way children communicate.”
Greenberg enlisted her daughter, her friends, and a few child models to participate. Their mothers came along for the shoots, and together they’d work to get the children to start crying.
“The moms would hand them a lollipop in some cases, or they would offer them their cellphone—and then just sort of ask for it back. And basically the child was throwing a tantrum to try to get this candy or toy back, sort of putting on a show in a way,” Greenberg said.
She said that the specific photographic techniques used to heighten the drama, a special recipe of studio lights combined with some postproduction effects that she often uses in her commercial work, might have intensified the outcry.
“I think the lighting and the whole approach shooting slightly from below it makes the subject heroic and iconic and intense, and it sort of overly dramatizes the emotion,” she said.
But in general, Greenberg said the controversy is overblown. “Making children cry for a photographer can be considered mean. But I would say that making children laugh and show off their jeans for an apparel ad is just as exploitative and less natural. Toddlers’ natural state, like 30 percent of the time, is crying, and it doesn’t indicate pain or suffering,” Greenberg said.
In a way, Greenberg said, the photographs are serving their intended purpose by inciting a strong emotional reaction from viewers. “The still image continues to have a ton of strength,” Greenberg said. “An image taken out of context from one fraction of a second to the next can tell a story, and if photographers are looking to tell a certain story, they can curate those slices of time to their advantage.”
But in other ways, Greenberg said, the series has had a life of its own that she didn’t expect and doesn’t appreciate. She said she continues to get hate mail about the photographs, and in one case, an agency refused to hire her for a job because of the controversy surrounding the series. Further, Greenberg said the images are often imitated and regularly stolen for use in advertising and political campaigns.
“What’s weird about the images is they seemingly can be applied to all these random disparate causes. My husband was saying they’re like emoticons,” she said.
Though the series has caused her plenty of headaches, Greenberg said she doesn’t regret doing it. “It’s sort of bizarre how it’s become such a focal point in my career,” Greenberg said. “It’s just this double-edged sword. I did so much work before it, and I did so much after. It’s hard as an artist when you become known for one thing. It’s really, really hard to fight your way out of that box.”
The series is now collected in a book, published by TF Editores/D.A.P.