Make a portrait of a young and adorable child. Most probably, the picture will be adorable. Make a portrait of the same child smoking a cigarette. The result will be less adorable.
To some it may seem absurd: a child doing what normally is done by adults. To others it will be offensive, unacceptable and shocking: a child should not be allowed to smoke.
Although the series of photographs by Belgian artist Frieke Janssens was inspired by a real Indonesian kid smoking, “Smoking Kids” is not really about kids smoking.
Whimsical and volatile as smoke itself, the smoking culture in western society is undergoing constant change. Until recently, smoking has always been widely and socially accepted. There were times when actors and actresses had a cigarette in their hand all the time. Like in American Indian cultures, where a pipe is passed around and brings a sense of community, smoking is like a ritual, a form of communing. In spite of the ban on smoking in bars and restaurants, this ritual, although shifted to porches and sidewalks, still survives. It remains a way of making contact.
The kids in Janssens’ images look like little adults, just because of the act of smoking. But also because they have been depicted as famous people of long ago. Also the format refers to old school medallion style portraiture. Without placing them in a too specific era, it is clear that the photographs refer to a time gone by. A time when smoking was the norm, and where kids doing so would only have been laughed at, and not scolded or punished.
By showing the act of smoking in an unconventional way, the artist is only trying to draw the attention to the meaning of smoking, then and now. Kids love to imitate adults and do what is forbidden. For adults, in present society, very often, lighting a cigarette becomes like a rebellious act, defying the socially accepted norm. For decades smoking was a way to belong to the mainstream. Now smoking is seen by many as underdog behavior.
For anyone who’s worried about the children’s health during the making of these photographs: the kids have never been exposed to cigarettes nor cigarette smoke.
SMOKING KIDS by Frieke Janssens
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