While works of art can push boundaries, photographer Frieke Janssen may have taken her creative license too far in depicting several young children, between the ages of four to nine, puffing clouds of cigarette smoke.
The Brussels-based artist has released a series of 1940s 'Old Hollywood'-inspired photographs featuring young models dressed to the nines in adult attire and puffing away seductively on cigarettes.
Included in the 15-photo collection titled “Smoking Kids” is one young girl, “Fag Ash Lill,” donning heavy lipstick and a stylish black suit staring sharply through the lens as the cigarette hangs from her lips. In another called “Ringlings,” a young girl stares blows smoke rings as if they were bubbles, while in “To the End,” a uniformed boy puffs away.
"A YouTube video of a chain smoking Indonesian toddler inspired me to create this series, "Smoking Kids," Janssen told Fox411.com's Pop Tarts column in a statement. "The video highlighted the cultural differences between the east and west, and questioned notions of smoking being a mainly adult activity. I felt that seeing children smoke would have a surreal impact on the viewer and compel them to truly see the acts of smoking rather than making assumptions about the person doing it."
"Coincidentally around the time of the first opening of "Smoking Kids", a law was passed that banned smoking from Belgian bars," she added. "There was an outcry from the public about government intervention, feelings that freedom was being oppressed, and that adults were being treated like children."
So are the photographs just plain art, or is just plain awful?
“As a professional, I consider these photos as obscene as child pornography,” Los Angeles-based psychologist Dr. Nancy Irwin told FOX411’s Pop Tarts column. “They may be an artist’s attempt to underscore the difficulty and pressures of childhood and/or make it look ‘cute.’ But I consider this the height of irresponsibility. Sexualizing or glamorizing anything as deadly as smoking is unconscionable.”
Janssen said Fox411.com the cigarettes featured in the portraits were fake and made from cheese, and that the smoke was from incense and candles on set. However, Irwin insisted that the portraits still send an extremely inappropriate message to the young, impressionable subjects involved.
“This can still have a very negative effect on the models. They are being encouraged to look adult, glamorous way ahead of their years, and to make something deadly look attractive and outrageous,” she said. “I sincerely hope their parents debriefed them after the shoot.”
Pop culture expert Rachelle Friberg concurred.
“One has to wonder what message is being sent to children who will see these photographs, not to mention the children whose own parents would allow them to pose for such a series,” she told Fox411.com. “Shocking photographs such as these, while edgy and contemporary, seem to glorify smoking. While the children in these photos are beautiful, the reality remains that there is nothing beautiful or glamorous about smoking or the cancer diagnosis that may one day come as a result. Let children be children.”
Some art bloggers have argued that Janssen’s collection was not intended to be controversial, but instead to provoke thought and ignite conversation.
“These portraits evoke questions such as: is the smoking ban the right way to get rid of an addiction and are smokers treated like little kids who can’t make the difference between good and bad?," Tom Tack wrote in his “I Love Belgium” blog. "While Frieke doesn’t give answers, the portraits are strong enough to start your thinking process."