Good art can sometimes make us uncomfortable. It can spark conversation and push the limits. When it pushes too far, Art stops and inhumanity begins. Photographer Jill Greenberg did more than push the limits, she enlisted and paid parents to exploit their children, so that she could capture the shot.
“End Times” is a series of images of very young naked children. They are crying so hard that saliva drips from their mouths to their nipples. Their red, pleading, and watery eyes beg for help. This is the “raw emotion” that Greenberg was trying to capture, and she created the environment to do just that.
Each of these children was given candy. Parents were paid to remove it in a way that would illustrate their child’s powerlessness, so that it could be captured on film. The shoot was successful. Greenberg got what she wanted, and mom and dad got some cash.
The heartbreak, lack of control, and emotion is undeniable as we look at the images of these children. There is something else in each picture, something that nags at viewers just a little until we connect the common theme amongst them: it is one of power, control, and vulnerability.
Each child is naked, and the images progressively show more desperation, and more skin. The final image in the series is one of saliva reaching from the mouth of the subject to her nipple. The stream flows over her long, blond, flowing locks, and lands one of the only two protrusions visible on her young chest. Her mouth is open and her wet eyes look upward, begging it seems, for someone to help her.
This sentiment streams across each image: a powerless, naked, distraught child begging for help. Greenberg calls it Art. Others call it sadism, masochism and exploitation. All these brutal tactics and techniques, most typically associated with torture and war, forced upon a powerless group of young children by their own parents; a minority whose vulnerability, innocence, and powerlessness we vow to protect.
What is stunning about this series, is the blatant admission of our belief that children are property; beings who are here to do what we want, and to be used in any way that provides their owners with gratification. Typically, we mask this belief with claims that children are resilient, do not remember, or are overly sensitive. Not Greenberg, though. Greenberg and the parents of these children say loudly and undeniably that bigger people have all the power, and that abusing it for our own gain is not only OK, but should be rewarded with industry awards and acclaim.
Art should not exploit and abuse a weaker people. When it does, we can see it as a reflection of the times, and use it as a wake-up call to address the issue it brought forth.
In this case, Art shows us that children are property. They are used for personal and societal gratification, and have little hope for finding trust and comfort in the world around them.
When parents and other adults intentionally set children up for hurt and objectification, what are kids to do? When a person is left without an ally, where are they to turn for help?
It is possible that the message of this series is one of the worst kind; that children are available to use in whatever way we see fit. It seems that the photographer’s choice for the subjects to be naked leads us down a more revolting path; one that suggests that in addition to our ability to control these weaker beings, their bodies are also available to use at our discression, and however we see fit.
If art imitates life, it is time to change life for children.