Smoking Kids

Between 80,000 and 100,000 children worldwide start smoking every day.
There is a death caused by tobacco every 8 seconds.

Two years ago, Belgian photographer Frieke Janssens tumbled upon a video posted on YouTube of a chubby Indonesian two year old smoking one cigarette after another, totaling an average of two packs a day. Recognizing the many socio-cultural differences between the East and the West, the artist’s plan to confront the Western viewer with such conflicting, surreal images grew and she departed on her new artistic mission. “Smoking Kids” is the title of Frieke Janssens’ somewhat controversial photographic project. Fifteen children aged between four and nine pose in a startling adult way in front of the camera, each smoking a cigarette, cigar or pipe. They look like they stepped right out of a 1960’s TV show, which adds a modestly theatrical, retro quality but also something whimsical and unreal to the images. The effect of these photos on the viewer has proven to be both overwhelming and diverse.

Since their inauguration at the artist’s representing Gallery Ingrid Deuss (Antwerp, Belgium) in 2011, the art world quickly responded with fascination and admiration for this bold series of photographs with consecutive exhibitions in Brussels (Belgium), Vladivostok (Russia) and New York (USA) as results. Simultaneously, the images traveled the Internet and appeared and reappeared on blogs, forums and other open discussion websites where comments of disbelief and concern ruled the day. Unaware of the skillful Photoshop tricks the artist applied to the photos, once again, people convicted [this] contemporary art to be shocking and manipulative, now even dragging children down the abyss of its sensation-focused ambitions. But, Janssens’ photographs are really not that. Instead, they manage to hold an almost perfect balance between something that we consider to be ugly and wrong (the habit of smoking and children who have developed that habit) and an aesthetically pleasing image. Although many among us will condemn and frown upon the pictured action, Janssens’ “Smoking Kids” are likeable, clever and thought-provoking, like all good art should be.
The visual impact of a photograph can be potentially so intriguing that it has the capability of challenging our personal and shared critical opinion. Parallel to working on her artistic projects, Frieke Janssens is a widely celebrated photographer of campaigns for diverse, nationally significant cultural institutions and projects. She is one of few successful contemporary photographers that have managed to stay faithful to her own artistic style and vision, assignment after assignment. “Smoking Kids’” perfectness of the image, the care with which the artist selected the costumes, her sharp eye for details like accessories, the different hairstyles, the varied poses and the suggested emotions, the clever manipulations of the cigarette’s smoke, prove how here too, Janssens strives for the creation of as perfect as possible, recognizable and attention-grabbing images. Committedly, she exploits her growing artistic talent and technical expertise to produce images that make a difference and that are truly intriguing. The ingenious ambiguities in the work of Frieke Janssens are of surplus value and clearly spark the curiosity of large groups of people both locally and worldwide.
“Smoking Kids” is set to travel to exhibition spaces and art galleries in New York (USA), Chicago (USA) and Los Angeles (USA) in the coming years. ©Jan Van Woensel

Jan Van Woensel is an independent curator, writer and musician currently based in Brussels, Belgium. From 2004 to 2010 he lived and worked in the USA where he was appointed as “Professor and International Curator & Critic” at New York University (NYC), Otis College of Arts and Design (Los Angeles) and California College of the Arts (San Francisco). Van Woensel currently works on exhibitions with Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth) and writes music in his touring band Reeno Stars.

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