A world without cigarettes: Malaysian photographers share tales of going smoke-free

Tan Mei Zi
David Lok’s photographs tap into the psychological aspect of addiction and dependency. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 21 — Malaysian photographer David Lok was lucky enough to quit smoking just two years after he took his first puff.

The renowned shutterbug used to swipe cigarettes from his father’s stash as a youth and would often pool money with friends to buy a pack.

A chance encounter with an unfiltered cigarette finally made Lok question if the habit was worth the long-term risks.

“One day, I stole an unfiltered cigarette from my dad. What happened was that after I smoked it, I coughed the hell out of myself.

“I was in tears and I thought I was going to die. That made me think, do I really need this? This bad taste in the mouth, all this coughing?

“That was the last cigarette I ever smoked and I haven’t touched one until now,” he told Malay Mail.

Prompting people to reflect on themselves is a central element of Lok’s work, which is currently on display at Philip Morris Malaysia’s Unsmoke: Through the Lenses of Malaysians photography exhibition.

The event is part of the global Unsmoke Your World campaign aimed at prompting smokers to give up the habit and if they can’t, to switch to safer alternatives.

(From left) Lok, Nadirah Zakariya, and SC Shekar at the ‘Unsmoke: Through the Lenses of Malaysians’ exhibition at Colony, Star Boulevard in Kuala Lumpur. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

Lok’s dreamy, cinematic shots draw viewers in to observe the work up close and challenge their perceptions, an attitude that he hopes smokers can adopt in their journeys to go smoke-free.

“The word ‘unsmoke’ resonates very well with me. I want to encourage people to think, because you don’t usually think much when it comes to habits.

“I hope my work can provoke people to question what they see and trigger their minds to process and question their perspectives.”

The photographer also shared how happy he was to see a few of his close friends give up smoking for good, adding that one of them has now become healthy enough to run in marathons.

Narratives like these are part of Philip Morris International’s (PMI) move to spark a revolution in the tobacco industry and create a smoke-free future, either by getting cigarette users to ditch the habit entirely or move on to smoke-free products.

Embracing a smoke-free world

Lok’s work is currently on display at Colony, Star Boulevard alongside fellow photographers Nadirah Zakariya and SC Shekar.

Focusing on the purity of a smoke-free world is a cause close to Shekar’s heart, who divides his time between being behind the camera and teaching children from rural schools in East Malaysia about Mother Nature.

“To me, this is the most important thing I can do. At the end of the day, these children will grow up and make decisions on our behalf,” he shared with Malay Mail.

The self-described environmentalist uses his photographs — many of which depict the lush landscapes of Malaysia’s rainforests and islands — to help drive the message home to his audience.

“When you tell children to love the environment, the concept doesn’t become clear until you show them a picture.”

He hopes that visitors can take away a sense of hope and optimism from his photographs and have faith that nature will bounce back if given the chance to flourish without human interference.

The word ‘unsmoke’ conjures up a world free from the ill effects of pollution for Shekar. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

The beauty of going smoke-free also comes through in Nadirah’s work, which sees delicate flowers blooming from ashtrays and scattered across sidewalks in place of unsightly cigarette buds.

Her photographs depict a utopian world where going smoke-free allows people to adopt a more playful and carefree attitude towards life.

“To me, an ‘Unsmoke’ world is a beautiful world. I’m a portrait photographer but in my downtime, I love shooting flowers. I think they’re wild and organic and ever-changing.

“I don’t smoke myself and I think that’s why I was excited about this campaign. I’m all for getting people to move in the right direction and give up smoking if they can.

“It’s not easy, but I think where there’s a will, there’s definitely a way. As long as you’re transforming yourself and changing into a better you, I’m all for it,” she told Malay Mail.

Cigarette buds are replaced with ethereal flowers in Nadirah’s photographs. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

The World Health Organisation predicts that the number of smokers worldwide will exceed one billion by 2025.

This makes PMI’s Unsmoke Your World campaign a timely initiative to kickstart historic change in public health by urging smokers to either quit the habit or switch over to smoke-free alternatives.

Curated by Lim Wei Ling, the Unsmoke: Through the Lenses of Malaysians exhibition will run from November 22 to December 1 at Colony, Star Boulevard on Jalan Yap Kwan Seng. Admission is free of charge.

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