End Times: Epilogue
By Jill Greenberg, 2012
When I set out to create my series of crying children in 2005, I had no idea that it would cause such a stir in both the photography and cultural community at large, or that the images would be so widely appropriated for causes significantly at odds with my original intent.
Each image in the series, which I entitled “End Times”, was created by eliciting a child’s hyperbolic reaction to minimal provocation. In many cases, the young subjects (children ages 2 to 4) required no provocation at all, and were simply agitated by the act of being photographed. The reasons for their distress were common to those of any child: having something taken away. As any parent knows, rarely does a toddler sobbing convey any real pain or mental anguish. At that age, it is one of the main methods of communication, and in this particular instance, a short tantrum provoked by gentle manipulation. Indeed, I found the circular logic at play a striking paradox. The children’s worlds were not ending by having a lollipop taken away, but if only they had the capacity to understand what was happening to their world—to the environment—as a result of the backwards, conservative leadership in the White House in 2005, when the photographs were made, they would undoubtedly be distressed.
Before the exhibition in April, 2006, “End Times” was exhibited in a solo booth at the Scope art fair in New York. There the work elicited no controversy. A few weeks later, a pseudonymous photo blogger—a banker by day—discovered the work online and wrote that I should be “arrested and charged with child abuse” for my techniques, an all out polemic ensued. When American Photo magazine cited the blogger and called the work,“the most controversial photo series of the year” in their April 2006 print edition, the volume of online comments in response crashed their server. I was interviewed by BBC TV, Inside Edition, Good Morning America; was covered in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, and El Pais in Spain among others. The London Sunday Times magazine ran a six-page cover story called “The Great Lollipop Debate,” referring to one of my methods for making the children cry. While I had very much intended for my art to be provocative, I had no sense of the hornet’s nest into which I was poking a sharp stick.
Nevertheless the work itself garnered awards and was acquired by significant private collectors. “End Times” has been exhibited in solo shows in Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Adelaide, Australia, and in group shows at such venues as Brown University, the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art in Toronto, Boston University, and Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rome (curated by Paul Wombell).
Because of the influx of attention, the images have been widely distributed and have served as a sort of visual accompaniment to a host of causes, institutions and businesses wishing to play on the sympathy evoked by an image of a child in distress. I don’t license my fine art work for advertising, and rarely for editorial or web use, but the images became a sort of visual meme and were stolen and used rampantly without my or the models’ guardians’ consent. To date, the images have been used in anti-child abuse campaigns, political campaigns for the far right in Switzerland and the communist party in Estonia, and for advertisements for phone applications and life insurance, as well as for countless Facebook and Twitter avatars.
If asked, I would never have allowed for the images to be used for any intent and purpose other than that of my own. But I am seldom asked. Blogs dedicated to deconstructing “The Jill Greenberg effect”—my lighting and retouching techniques from the series—continue to pop up in such disparate languages as Arabic and German, and I’ve been told that photography students worldwide are being assigned to reproduce the images as part of their coursework.
The photographs have a life of their own now. I created them, and, like children, have ambivalently let them out into the world.