Discussing the ethics of photography


General Photography

Regular visitors will be aware of Jill Greenberg’s work, in particular her photos of monkeys. But, of course, there are also the photos of cying children a series that, as I just learned, “doubles as a critique of the Bush administration.” (source)

I remember when I first saw the photos of the children, having seen the monkeys before, I thought “I like the monkeys better”. I also wondered how she managed to find that many crying children in front of her camera, but since I am usually fairly naive, I didn’t spend much more time thinking about it.

In a recent entry for his blog, Thomas Hawk fires some serious criticism at Jill Greenberg, since, as it appears, she coaxed the children into the behaviour shown in the photos. Given that the piece was written in quite the inflammatory tone, the situation escalated quite quickly from there, and the discussion now resembles Monty Python’s Townswomen’s Guild’s reenactment of The Battle of Pearl Harbor, with threats of libel suits and the usual First Amendment posturing (America’s contemporary version of Kabuki theater; see, for example, this page). Even more recently, Boing Boing brought more attention to it, only to be accused of bias.

Given the escalation of matters and especially the quite emotional subject matter it is ouf course hard to steer away from all the online yelling and finger pointing (don’t you just love the internet?). I think the subject matter does deserve some discussion, albeit not the one that actually happened, with the question being “Is it ethical to coax children into crying for an art project?” Note I’m using the word “coax” here since the actual process of how to do this is part of the problem, and I do not want to take sides at this point.

In the whole discussion there were already quite a few points made that surprised me a bit about this all. For example, I saw that some people claimed that if you do not have children, you’re not quite competent enough to be able to contribute. I don’t know, this is a bit like saying that if you make the promise to wait with sex until you’re married, you’re actually not competent enough to do that, since you never had sex before and, thus, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not sure how convincing this is, and in the case of treating children it might be worthwile to remember that we all were children once, and it might help to try to remember our own feelings back then.

Another point that I think needs to be made is the following: Artists do have the right to be taken seriously for what they’re doing. I think the public better start accepting this. However, the public has the right to decide for themselves whether they like some art work or not. And that’s what many artists yet have to learn. So if Jill Greenberg decides to make a statement about this world after six years of GW Bush - who, as she seems to have observed very well, tends to behave a lot like a petulant child - by taking photos of crying children, then that has to be accepted - regardless of whether ones like the idea or not. Whether it is ethical to coax the children is then the big question. I, for one, would think that the same photo series with adults instead of children would have been quite a bit more interesting - but that’s just me.

The coaxing of the children, of course, is the main issue, and quite the emotional one. I think it’s safe to say that people’s ethics maps are quite diverse and extend in all kinds of directions, often with surprising little overlap. Making children cry to take their photos is outside my personal map. Taking away a lollipop doesn’t really strike me as child abuse, though, even though the images of the children show that they were in quite severe emotional distress. I find it quite hard to discount that emotional distress as something that they just do because they’re children. That’s really not all that different from saying that a little spanking won’t hurt, isn’t it?

Also, I think I read somewhere that what Jill Greenberg did with the children was well within the bounds of the advertizing industry, say. Again, this might not be the strongest argument really, since the ethical maps of the advertizing industry and of the Salvation Army, say, appear to have very little - if any - overlap.

Maybe another way to think abut this is to ask what the children might think about these photos once they’re grown up. Will they be happy to see those photos? An interesting case for a comparison would be Sally Mann’s, who was acused of all kinds of things when she took photos of her naked children (lots of links here).

I think, if you’ve looked through all those discussions online, you will have noticed the enormous amount of venom being hurled at people, from both sides. I don’t know what it is about the internet that facilitates this; but whatever it is I don’t like it. And it’s worthwile remembering (or maybe learning) that there are many shades of grey, and the world is not all black and white. Having said that, it seems to me that it’s also important to keep in mind that photography cannot be treated as if it was completely independent of the world around us. For many photo projects, there are small and sometimes even big ethical issues, and it’s in the best interest of all parties involved to try to sort things out in a civil way.

There are probably many people out there who wonder why the kerfuffle? And in a sense, I can understand them. I think calling Jill Greenberg’s work child abuse is a very bad choice of words. I also think that coaxing little children into crying to take photos as a comment about the world or the Bush administration is a poor choice.