Occasionally, an image so inestimably paradoxical shakes us right out of our most comfortable pat precepts. For many stateside, Belgian photographer Frieke Janssen’s series Smoking kids did just that.
Janssen’s unapologetically aestheticized Film Noir and Jazz Age – inspired child louches, captured in mid-pull on another shadowy vestige of glamour, cough, the cigarette, fly in the face of North America’s over-a-decade-long war against tobacco. Another layer of meaning can perhaps be interpreted as well considering the photographer’s additional commercial work in advertising.
However, Janssen’s handling of the surreal In Kids – the way in which the artist blurs the line between the real and the imagined – is effective in more surprising ways. Another of the series’ more cryptic inspirations; YouTube’s viral chain-smoking Indonesian toddler – in effect enables the unearthing of even further, more buried and more dense cultural dissonance.
Unsurprisingly, the relatively new artist’s American debut at Brooklyn’s VII Gallery last winter rounded out a growingly captive audience with the press. And, like its online catalyst, the series’ alarmingly inappropriate but morbidly compelling (and in the case of Smoking Kids at least, undeniably humorous) scenarios touched a deep and universal nerve.
Were you artistic as a child? What were your earliest inspirations?
Yes, I would say more so than the average child, but I couldn’t draw that well. Not sure about my childhood inspirations – maybe the Belgian Surrealist painters. At fifteen I discovered photography and found the medium to express myself the best. I knew I wanted to be a photographer and I started to visit many exhibitions.
Whose photography did you discover at fifteen? Or was it a particular camera?
No particular photography or camera, just photography in general.
How was the recent show in NYC?
I hadn’t planned to show Smoking Kids in the US in the beginning. But because the most positive response came out of New York and Los Angeles, I thought, “I have to bring my show to one of these two cities”. I do not regret it at all. I was very happy with the interest from the public and the press, not to mention; a week in New York is always inspiring.
How do you find a balance between your art and your commercial photography?
I call myself a photographer now because as well as my personal work (my art) I shoot for magazines and advertising. There, I still attempt to put as much as possible of myself into the work. From the moment I graduated I knew I had to also make my own work, because it’s very important to develop your own style and vision.
Speaking of vision, what were some specific inspirations for look of the Smoking Kids series?
All those glamorous Jazz-age and Hollywood portraits of famous actors with cigarettes in their hands.
The series utilizes surrealism, and you mention Belgian surrealists as a childhood inspiration. What attracts you to the movement?
Yes, I was always intrigued by surrealism. I like to show people things that derive from another point of view – the other side of the coin, like in the Smoking Kids and the Your Last Shot series.
Smoking Kids garnered such great media circulation and really hit a cultural nerve. Discuss how the series came about; your process.
It started with the thought; “I have to remember this, it could be something interesting” after seeing a certain Jazz LP. The cover showed a trumpeter surrounded by smoke. I thought the smoke gave so much atmosphere; some soft layer that pulls the picture together. After many rough ideas, I started to construct an image in my mind from my imagination. This stage can take long because before I even start creating the pictures for real, they’re already so developed in an advanced stage in my head. You could call this the ‘imaginary re-creation method’. There were several inspirations, such as that LP cover. But a YouTube video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2lzvoGGXBc) of a chain-smoking toddler gave the final meaning and allowed me to start the series. Together with the press, I too was shocked when I saw that video. It really highlighted the cultural differences between the East and the West and questioned notions of smoking as mainly an adult activity.
Amongst questioning some other things! I remember that video! Well, that inspiration makes sense. What was your motivation; what discourse with or amongst viewers were you hoping to initiate?
I wanted to show people the other side of the coin. Smokers know it’s dangerous, but on the other hand they can’t help themselves. My ultimate intention is for people look at a beautiful picture that is on the other hand disturbing as well. It makes it difficult to simply like or dislike the pictures. I don’t want to proscribe to people what to do, but rather to provoke thought as much as possible. I think this is something that you can detect also in my other series – for instance, in The Intoxicated. In that series all my models were actually drunk. The contrast – between the ‘fashion’ approach to photographic images and what you are actually viewing in that series, is confronting. It’s the same objective for my recent series, Your Last Shot
What about the Smoking Kids series makes it seemingly your most prolific – so far?
Yes, so far – though I have good expectations for my next series. I remember sitting on a terrace a week before the first opening in Antwerp; I had a good feeling about it, but I never expected it would be that successful. The theme is very universal and perhaps that could be part of the explanation.
Yes, in the West at least, it seems that anti-smoking has a firm hold on the culture. Have the responses to the series surprised you in any other way?
People reacted how I expected.
Are there strong anti-smoking initiatives in Belgium/Europe compared to North America – and might this element color responses to your work?
I have the impression that America is much stricter with smoking bans than Europe, especially comparing with Southern Europe. But smoking is also on the decline in Europe. Before maybe seventy-five percent of a given group smoked, now it’s more like twenty-five. However, people can still smoke in front of their office in Europe! Yes, I believe that this element has colored responses. Because the theme is so actual, so part of our culture, my show made almost all of the front pages in Belgium one day after the first opening in Antwerp.
I found that, as an objective viewer of your glamorized photographs of smoking children, it’s natural to ascribe significance to the fact that you also shoot commercial work. Is this association valid?
I started as a commercial photographer. And, commercial work gives you more time for each image, so I developed an eye for details. But other than this, no – I didn’t take any meaning out of my commercial enterprises for the series.
Interesting to know. Is there disparity between European or specifically Belgian vs. American reactions to the series?
I thought people would have a harder time accepting the work in the US, but actually a more varied audience visited the show in New York. In fact, the second day in, a few construction workers even came in off the street to see the show. And, I think they saw themselves in the shot The Gasper – who is pictured sneaking a cigar of his grandfather on the sly. Actually, a lot of men see themselves in this one.
Funny. Was casting approached via word of mouth or through an agent?
I organised a big casting online and I selected kids that I had photographed in the past for commissioned jobs – kids whom I thought I should remember for my personal work. I looked on Facebook. I asked friends to send recent pictures of their kids and finally I launched a call through casting agencies. Ultimately, I chose fifteen kids out of one-hundred-and-fifty to two-hundred kids.
Was there any required ‘briefing’ for the parents/children prior to shooting?
Before the shoot, I explained to the parents very well the theme and I assured them there were no real cigarettes on set. Instead, chalk and sticks of cheese were used as props, while candles and incense provided the wisps of smoke. Kids are much easier to work with than people expect. I think they are excited already one week before the shoot – like with Saint Nicholas. When they arrive there’s somebody giving them clothes and doing their make-up. Very exciting for kids, especially for girls. Boys are less patient. I always try to find the line where they feel comfortable but also listen to what you ask them.
Were you intensely involved in the complex styling/makeup?
Yes, very much, to the point that sometimes I have to step back and give my team more freedom from time to time. I construct each image in my mind, in my imagination, before every shoot – as I mentioned. Pleasant surprises are very welcome, but the longer I have practiced the profession of photography the fewer surprises I come across, interestingly.
Very interesting, because some photographers I interview tell me the best of their work often springs from spontaneous surprises. Any favorite photographers/influences throughout your career?
Specifically, photographer August Sander, but everything can inspire me: paintings, comics or even a real estate website. It’s intricate detail and strong humor that are important to me. No specific artists, but I like very much Otto Dix, Todd Solondz, Sofia Coppola, Tom Wesselman, Michael Borremans, and Léopold Rabus. I reference painters and directors as well as photography because in fact I’m more influenced by these.
Any photographers of children you admire?
Not in particular.
Do you plan to work with children again?
Not for the moment. My next series will be with female top-models and male professional male ballet dancers.
Can you discuss a little in detail what you are you working on currently?
I just finished a new cultural season for Toneelhuis, and I’m starting my next personal series, but I am quite hesitant to mention something about a project before it’s finished.
To view more of Frieke’s work: frieke.com