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Save the Children

Remember Jill Greenberg? She’s the photographer who took portraits of crying children and named the exhibition of them “End Times.” (Recently she’s also been shooting ads for Target.) Each of the portraits, melodramatic in their lighting and in the excruciating contortions in the children’s faces, is framed—by title and subject matter—as a commentary on the political scene. They’re manipulations of children, of course, and we didn’t talk much about the ethics of what she did to get the kids to cry like that nor about whether it was right of her to make kids cry in order to steal their souls. For me, it’s the photographs’ melodrama that saves them from being exploitive of both the children and me. When young children cry (for some reason, very, very easily when they get near me), it’s not necessarily because they have been harmed, but because they haven’t gained emotional wisdom enough to respond to experience in more sophisticated ways. Crying is what kids do for want of better ways to express themselves. So far as the “End Times” portraits reveal some aspect of childhood, it is one particular aspect of its emotional openness, and no more. After all, it is just as easy to get children to laugh as it is to make them cry; if there is no ethical question in photographing the former, the ethics surrounding the latter are only slightly more questionable.

Out of curiosity, I went browsing Greenberg’s site yesterday (her other portraits of children are really good, as are the monkeys and the “Straight Portraitures”; the bears, however, are cloying) and discovered in the process that “End Times” angered more than a few people. In particular, last April photographer Thomas Hawk wrote “Jill Greenberg is a Sick Woman Who Should Be Arrested and Charged With Child Abuse,” a post title descriptive enough to preclude any need to quote him further. You can follow the controversy from his blog, but in sum—and according to him—apparently Hawk’s complaint was noticed and Greenberg or someone connected to her tried to intimidate him. The whole thing appears rather shameful, both Hawk’s teeth clenching and Greenberg’s decision not to let her photos speak for themselves.

I would have been particularly amazed at how swift Hawk was to accuse Greenberg of child abuse if I hadn’t just read L.J. Williamson’s op-ed lamenting suburban parents’ fear of predators. Williamson’s is a brief essay punctuated by anecdotes from his son’s school, to which all the children’s parents are too afraid to allow their kids to walk. Asks one father, “Haven’t you heard about all of the predators in this area?,” as if the question alone were argument enough to keep the kids shut inside. To the parents’ fears, Williamson offers a juxtaposition:

Although statistics show that rates of child abduction and sexual abuse have marched steadily downward since the early 1990s, fear of these crimes is at an all-time high. Even the panic-inducing Megan’s Law website (here) says stranger abduction is rare and that 90% of child sexual-abuse cases are committed by someone known to the child. Yet we still suffer a crucial disconnect between perception of crime and its statistical reality. A child is almost as likely to be struck by lightning as kidnapped by a stranger, but it’s not fear of lightning strikes that parents cite as the reason for keeping children indoors watching television instead of out on the sidewalk skipping rope.

Living in a state with one of the more draconian sex-offender laws in the country, it’s not difficult to see the effects of fear on parents, but not being a parent myself, and not spending time significant time with other parents, it is difficult to recognize how continuous that fear might be. On top of that, the kids in my neighborhood walk to school. But I can see how, if I lived in a world where invisible sex offenders are, like Boo Radley, masturbating hiding behind every tree, I too might make every effort to be protective—it’s in such a world that Hawk’s accusations against Greenberg make the most sense. But I don’t think locking them up is the best way to protect them. The parents in Williamson’s neighborhood are afraid not simply because of the possibility of predators, but because they don’t believe the neighborhood is safe. There are a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that too few neighborhoods are designed for walking, which means too few parents and too few kids spend their time outside where they can verify the neighborhood’s safety. Such places may be, in a way, rather nice—full of golf courses, modern kitchens, hybrid SUVs, and flat-panel TVs—but they seem too liberated from perspective for my taste.