5-Year-Olds With Cigarettes: Glamorous or Hideous?

A new photography exhibit aims to make viewers think twice about what smoking really means.

Frieke Janssens does not want you to hate smoking.

For Smoking Kids, an exhibit running from January 10 through February 8 at New York's VII gallery, the Belgian photographer placed cigarettes in the hands of children, most of them ages 4, 5, and 6. In doing so, she aimed to provoke viewers into thinking about smoking's inherent contradictions: Smoking is both the source of extreme pleasure and extreme pain; it is as sexy as it is grotesque; it is both the fount of a million friendships and an icon of isolation. "If I had photographed adults," said Janssens, "you would not pay attention." Below, she answers questions about her work.

When you created Smoking Kids, did you intend to shock people?

I don't like to shock people. What I try to do is show people something that I haven't already seen. I like surrealist work. I always try to make my photographs as beautiful as possible, to give my message in a really soft way.

Are the cigarettes and cigars real?

No. I used incense and chalk, so as not to be controversial. I also put cheese in the papers -- gruyere cheese that you put on your spaghetti. I really pay attention to a lot of details. People I work with laugh at it, because I'm so detailed.

Who are the children? Did their parents object to the photographs?

They are the children of friends of mine. Also, through Facebook I asked people to join the project. And then I also used a casting agency. I had 150 or 200 children to choose from, and then I chose 16. I thought a few parents would say no. But they all told me, "It's not real, I don't have problems with it."

What is "the message" in this series?

That's hard. I never want to tell people what to do. The pictures are not to criticize smoking. I want people to think about what smoking is: what it was in the past, what it will become in the future. Smoking is bad for your health, it costs a lot. On the other hand, it's so nice, cigarettes with friends.

Do you think any of the children will grow up to be smokers?

I don't think so. When I smoked for the first time, I was 14. I thought it was cool. I was a smoker myself for many years, and it was really hard to quit. But it's not the same anymore. I really think smoking is going to disappear.

You're also showing an exhibition at the VII gallery called Your Last Shot.

It's an art project where I offer to make someone their "last shot" that they can use on their grave or their prayer card when they die. For me a cemetery is like a photo exhibition. If you see a name, it doesn't tell you much, but if you see a picture, you learn so much. But when somebody dies, people always look very fast for a picture of that person and then they do bad Photoshop to remove other people from the picture. So my idea is, "Choose the last shot yourself."

I always work in dualities. I like to make something beautiful out of something ugly, to show people the two sides of a coin.

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Julie Turkewitz is a New York-based journalist. She also writes for the New York Times.

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