A few years back, the YouTube video of an Indonesian baby who smoked 40 cigarettes a day went viral and caught the attention of Frieke Janssens. She was intrigued and started to think about the cultural differences between the East and West, specifically how smoking is viewed around the world.
The result, “Smoking Kids,” is a styled view of what children—or almost miniature adults—would look like if they were smoking. The series will be exhibited at VII Gallery in Brooklyn, opening Thursday and running through Feb. 8. Some of the kids look like shrunken versions of Marlene Dietrich; others could be extras in The Great Gatsby or even Mad Men.
For the Belgian Janssens, the series is simply another way of looking at the idea of smoking around the world.
“My series is not pro- or anti-smoking,” explained Janssens. “My goal is to make people think about the meaning of it.”
Since releasing the images a couple of years ago, Janssens has received a lot of press about the series. Much of the reaction has been what she expected.
“First people see a picture they like because I paid a lot of attention to the aesthetics of the images,” said Janssens. “But on the other hand they see a kid smoking; [it’s] surreal for them in the Western context.”
Part of that aesthetic process included working with a lot of kids, which is “much easier than people expect,” Janssens insists. “The girls were excited and very patient—the boys, not so much. But I always had the parents away from the set since it’s easier for the kids without them around—much easier for them to concentrate.”
Janssens shot the series with a relatively small team including hair and makeup artists, wardrobe stylists, and prop stylists who fabricated the cigarettes out of cheese (they are in Belgium, after all), and a post-production team to create the illusion of the kids smoking.
Whether portraying children with cigarettes or adults taking their final portraits before dying, Janssens is interested in taking a deeper look into societal norms.
“I always try to make people reflect on social or lifestyle subjects. But I also want the viewer to enjoy looking at the images. I think that is the duality of my work.”
What you think of Janssens’ controversial work? Share your thoughts in the Comments below.
Assistants: Koen Vernimmen, Romain Menke
Make-up artists: Sigrid Volders, Rebecca Despeghel, Annelien Debusschere
Wardrobe stylists: Lisa Lapauw, Britt Ange
Casting: Alfred Kika, Promokids, Ministar, Streetcasting
Post-production: Heckle 'n Hyde
Making of: Matthias Lebeer, Alexandre Nerac, Ioannis Tsouloulis & Befocus visual agency