The fuss over Jill Greenberg's photography.

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Sept. 16 2008 4:20 PM

Exploit and Click

The fuss over Jill Greenberg's photography.

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On the other hand, Greenberg isn't Leni Riefenstahl, either. Small children, as she points out in the PopPhoto interview, often have tantrums, and they usually blow over quickly, and are just as quickly forgotten. To provoke tears in order to take a picture is objectionable, and worthy of some condemnation. But it's not as if she beat them with a belt because she wanted to photograph their bruises. On this front, it seems to me, Greenberg was wrong, and Hawk overreacted, and there isn't much more to be said.

But an insight can be sifted out of Greenberg's peccancy and Hawk's cant. Photography tends to magnify and distort both deeds and misdeeds—more so than other art forms, and in fact more than almost any activity I can think of. The specter of exploitation hovers over it, and it's this, I think, that accounts for Hawk's disproportionate outrage. If Greenberg were making infants weep in the service of a psychological experiment, one might feel uneasy, but the dismay would no doubt be tempered by one's sense that a greater good was to come of it. If she were doing it because she wanted to, say, draw them, or write poems about them, many people might still find it objectionable, but not, I don't think, to quite the same degree. Indeed, if she were doing it just for the hell of it, we would consider her cruel and culpable; but the fact that she made them cry so that she could take their pictures somehow makes it worse.

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The point becomes clearer, or at any rate starker, by comparison with pornography. In most states, the age of consent is 16 or 17, but federal law stipulates that you can only be photographed having sex if you're 18 or older. Two 17-year-olds can copulate to their hearts' content, and their friends can watch: However creepy it may be, no laws would be broken. But they can't be photographed in the act, nor can anyone, of any age, so much as look at such a photo. The picture has a legal status quite different from the thing it pictures.

This is as it should be, for many reasons; but one of them is simply that photography is, in its essence, a form of predation, and its being so transforms the meaning of the scenes it shows. The power of the photographer over his or her subject is immense, and not just because one can manipulate the other, or even because one acquires and owns an image of the other. A photograph is, as the vernacular has it, something you "take," but the taking isn't simply material: It's metaphysical, and it's moral (I would say it's spiritual, if the word didn't seem vapid).

Exploitation lies at the root of every interaction between a photographer and a human subject, and every photographer worth a damn knows this. It is unavoidable, it is intrinsic to the very act taking pictures, and the most sophisticated photographers work their understanding of it into their practice, in various subtle ways. I've watched dozens of them at work, and each has a different method: Some bond with their subjects, some boss them around, some flirt and seduce, some ignore, some distract, and some just watch. But with the best of them you can see something in their eyes, and in their work, that proves their trustworthiness and creates a kind of complicity. Jill Greenberg is decidedly not one of the best, but her clumsiness inadvertently reveals a fundamental truth: Taking a picture is a deep and ethically complex thing to do, and everyone who engages in it is compromised, right from the start.

I don't mean this as a condemnation of photography. On the contrary, I love the medium, and it fascinates me endlessly, precisely because it's so freighted with the problem of power and responsibility. It is born in a bed of plunder and abuse; but in the right hands it can end in beauty, and how we get from one to the other is as profound a grace as any art can manifest.

Jim Lewis is the author of three novels, most recently, The King Is Dead.