Indonesia’s relationship with tobacco is complex. Cheap cigarettes, ubiquitous tobacco advertising, a powerful tobacco industry and the lack of government enforcement are sustaining a long-running national addiction.

Nearly 70% of the men in this predominantly Muslim country smoke, with the habit often beginning from childhood. While smoking rates decline in the developed world (the U.S. smoking rate has fallen to less than 20%), demand is growing in Indonesia. Foreign tobacco giants—such as Marlboro manufacturer Philip Morris—faced with shrinking markets back home are keen on establishing themselves in under-regulated areas like Indonesia

With many parties standing to gain, smokers in Indonesia continue to grow younger—by 2010, there were at least 426,000 smokers aged 10-14. This represents a large and shocking increase from the 71,000 in 1995.

This ongoing series of photographs captures young child smokers in villages and cities across Indonesia.

—Michelle Siu

Interview:

Photography is a universal language and also a great way of telling stories. Photojournalist Michelle Siu tries to portray her subjects in as fair a way as possible while also pulling her readers in to see more than one shocking image. Assistant editor Alexander Strecker got in touch to find out more about her approach to photojournalism.

LC: Can you introduce yourself and explain how you first became interested in photography?

MS: For a long time I was really introverted but I was always very curious about meeting new people and discovering new places. I first became interested in photography because it provided a way for me to interact with life and make sense of the world around me. It was an outlet for me to come out of my shell a bit and a way to pursue a love for storytelling. One of the most beautiful things about photography is that it can speak all languages and I think that is what initially attracted me most to photography over other media.

LC: Were there any pivotal moments in helping you establish yourself as a professional photographer? Or a moment when you decided, when you felt deep inside: “I need to be a photojournalist.”

MS: I was working a series of 9-5 desk jobs in communications/marketing for an aid agency and then a newspaper. I was going stir-crazy working in an office. One day, I decided to quit my job and do the cliché thing: backpack across Morocco. Around that time, a person who I admire told me that people ought to pursue the career they wanted most as a child. I have always loved storytelling and the only thing I’ve ever wanted was to be was a photographer and a journalist. So photojournalism just made sense.

LC: Can you tell us more about “Marlboro Boys”? How did you become interested in the topic? How did you meet your subjects? Did you have difficulty gaining access to their homes?

MS: I had read a series of articles about the tobacco industry in Indonesia and came across a number of documentaries—but I couldn’t find a photo essay on the issue. I am always drawn to photographing vulnerable people, which is why this project centers around children’s health.

Once I arrived, I learned a lot on the ground. For example, I learned the value of a fixer. In fact, I can’t stress enough that this project would have been impossible without a very good fixer. Luckily, I found myself an incredibly talented fixer. My fixer was key in arranging visits to some of the family’s homes. On my own, I did manage to meet some of my subjects. This was done simply by spending many hours roaming the streets. All that being said, access wasn’t easy. It often took hours of talking and relationship-building before a single frame was shot.

LC: Some of the images are beautiful and poetic and some others are more realistic and shocking—how do you balance these two dimensions in your work?

MS: I strove to approach this series with fairness to the story, transparency and sensitivity to the children and their families. The image of a young child inhaling tobacco like a practiced old man is definitely jarring. This is the contradiction that I am trying to capture. However, it is my hope that this project doesn’t only shock viewers but that people see it and ask questions. I hope this leads people to want to know more about the economic, social and political factors at play.

—Michelle Siu, interviewed by Alexander Strecker