For decades society was accustomed to seeing people smoke cigarettes in advertising campaigns, television sitcoms, and mainstream Hollywood movies. The sight of a cigarette was as common as the family dinner. Many mothers of baby boomers smoked during pregnancy, well before the surgeon general declared it harmful. Virginia Slims sponsored women’s tennis, and the Marlboro man and Camel Joe became American icons. Today, cigarettes are banned on airplanes, and in restaurants and bars in cities throughout the world. At the same time, there has been a resurgence of allure associated with smoking, as can be seen in one of the most beloved shows on television, Mad Men, which celebrates the era of cigarettes and martini lunches.
Frieke Janssens embarked on Smoking Kids in response to seeing a video of a chain-smoking toddler in Indonesia who became a tourist attraction. Alarmed by this reality, she decided to show people what the act of smoking looks like through the posturing of four to nine year old children. Working with modeling agencies, volunteers and family friends, Janssens tackled the issue of glamour often associated with smoking. Both irreverent and stunning, Janssens' photographs challenge our perceptions of smoking and the attitudes often defined by it. As the artist states:
“A YouTube video of a chain-smoking Indonesian toddler inspired me to create this series. The video highlighted the cultural differences between the east and west, and questioned the notion of smoking as an adult activity. Since adult smokers are the societal norm, I wanted to isolate the viewer's focus on the issue of smoking itself. I felt that children smoking would have a surreal impact upon the viewer and compel them to truly see the act of smoking rather than making assumptions about the person doing the act. Coincidentally, around the time I was making Smoking Kids, a law passed that banned smoking in Belgian bars. There was an outcry from the public about government intervention, freedom being oppressed, and adults being treated like children. With health reasons driving many cities to ban smoking, the culture around smoking has a retro feel, like the time period of Mad Men, when smoking on a plane or in a restaurant was not unusual. The aesthetics of smoke and the particular way smokers gesticulate with their hands and posture cannot be denied, and at the same time, there is a nod to the less attractive aspects, examining the beauty and ugliness of smoking.“
It is important to note that chalk and sticks of cheese were used as props for the cigarettes, and candles and incense provided the wisps of smoke. The final photographic results were done in computer, combining the photograph of the child with a photograph of an adult hand smoking a cigarette. Janssens invites the public to wrestle with these hauntingly beautiful images, which both seduce and shock.