Indonesia’s Marlboro Boys

Jarring photos of children enveloped in smoke—and a system that can’t stop them

Not too long ago, a video of an Indonesian 2-year-old chain-smoking went viral. As the photo essay below shows, there are many children who smoke in Indonesia, and the industry remains largely unregulated. “Indonesia’s relationship with tobacco is complex,” said photographer Michelle Siu. “Cheap cigarettes, ubiquitous advertising, a powerful lobby with tight political connections, and lack of law enforcement fuels a national addiction.”
According to recent studies, nearly 70 percent of men over the age of 20 smoke, and the average starting age is seven. But statistics don’t tell stories. That’s why Siu sought to photograph child smokers for her portrait series, Marlboro Boys. Each image features a young boy toking—enveloped in smoke, eyes glazed over—in his home. The viewer must look through this smoke to see the boys’ faces; it is almost as if the wisps of smoke have become a permanent part of their expressions. No house is obviously messier than another, and no boy’s clothing is more ragged than any other.
Child smoking in Indonesia is a health problem that transcends class, even if it is more popular among the poor. Everyone, in every home, suffers from the fumes. It’s not an issue of parenting or advertising; these children are victims of a broken system. “It is easy to start smoking when it is everywhere,” Siu said. “Young smokers begin the cycle of addiction, but at a health cost for generations to come.”