Ethics Dunce: Photographer Jill Greenberg


"No emoticons were upset in the writing of this post."

“No emoticons were upset in the writing of this post.”

In Slate, renowned photographer Jill Greenberg returns to the topic that gained her unwanted notoriety in May: her exhibition of photographs of children crying their little eyes out. Greenberg revealed at the time that she captured the powerful photographs by giving the very young children lollipops or something else they liked or wanted and then having family members ask the kids to return the item. Strangely,  as Drew Curtis’Fark, one of my favorite web  sources for stories is wont to say, some people had a problem with this.

Greenberg revisits the issue because she has a book of the weepy photographs coming out. Seldom does one read a more casual, “What is the matter with people?”, utterly clueless display of invalid rationalizations for unethical conduct as Greenberg belches out. Unfortunately, another tendency illustrated by the article is far more common: a news sources examination of an ethics issue without any apparent sensitivity or understanding of the ethics issues involved.

Here are Greenberg’s rationalizations, or at least the ones she gave to Slate. I’m sure she has many more.

  • The Trivial Trap, or “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” “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.” Ah. Not real suffering. Then it’s all right, then. The bottom line is that Greenberg is intentionally upsetting the children, who, it can be fairly said, are less anxious and happier when they are not crying. Children who are teased, frightened or otherwise made uncomfortable can also be said not to be in pain or “real” suffering. It’s still cruel, and an abuse of power, to treat them this way. Come to think of it, Greenberg could make the same argument about some of the models in child pornography. Would she, I wonder?
  • “Everybody does it” and the “They’re Just as Bad” Excuse. “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.” And, I suppose, making a Bangladesh child cry by taking food from her to make her cry is just as exploitative  and more natural than giving her food to make her smile, because, after all, she’s usually starving anyway.
  • The Saint’s Excuse or “It’s for a good cause” a.k.a “The ends justify the means.” Slate:  “The still image continues to have a ton of strength. 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. 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.” True, Jill, but those little smiley faces don’t have to be tortured to get them to frown or cry, because, unlike babies, they aren’t real human beings.

The bottom line is that Greenberg made money and got a lot of ink by making children unhappy, so she can’t see why anyone would argue that the conduct wasn’t justified, and based on the article, neither does Slate or its writer, Jordan G. Teicher. The photographer’s methods are, of course, obviously and indisputably unethical:

  • She exploited the children for her own agendas and benefit.
  • She abused her superior power over the children to get the reaction she wants.
  • She induced anxiety in another, causing needless harm.
  • She created a product, the photo, which memorializes a form of child abuse.
  • She recruited the children’s parents into assisting in the exploitation for the artist’s purposes, rather that doing their job as parents, thus inducing a breach of loyalty and a betrayal of parental duty.
  • She created and profited from a materialization of an unethical abuse of a child, which is identical to what child pornography does.
  • She encouraged others to create similar photographs, which will be created, in some cases, with even less humane methods.

Of course her methods were unethical. She deserves every bit of criticism and hate mail that she has received. But the sophisticates, like Slate and others, just shrug off the concern as foolishness, much ado about nothing. So she made kids cry! They cry all the time! What matters is that she got some great pictures!

Many of society’s problems arise from the fact that our media can’t recognize, and thus encourages, unethical behavior, even obvious examples like making little children cry for fame and fortune.


Pointer: Alexander Cheezem

Sources: Bored Panda, Slate, Fully M


92 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Photographer Jill Greenberg

  1. This reminds me of the time I made a critical decision, on the spot, while covering the aftermath of a killing F5 tornado at Tanner, Alabama the night of April 3, 1974.

    Walter McGlocklin was walking away from me, carrying one of his two surviving daughters. He was cradling this little girl, her upper body and tear streaked face peeking just above her father’s right shoulder. The look of utter horror on her face! The lighting was perfect, an eerie cross hatch of flashlights and spotlights – I KNEW I had the picture of the year. I raised my Minolta 35 mm and focused in. And that’s when it happened. Something inside me said, Do NOT violate this little girl’s privacy. Do NOT allow this little girl’s unbearable pain to act as fodder to sell newspapers across the country. I slowly lowered my camera. It’s a decision, one of only a very few, of which I will forever be proud of.

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