Lethal effects of junk food featured in sophomore’s anti-obesity campaign

Courtesy of Marta Shakhazizian
An image from Shakhazizian’s Junk Kills campaign, which highlights the dangers of unhealthy eating.


She is far from conscious – her body lies limp on the ground. Hair fallen in front of her eyes hides the young woman’s face. Pill bottles scatter the scene – the contents of which spill from her hand and litter the surrounding floor. But this isn’t your typical overdose.

No, the young woman has not consumed too many illegally obtained drugs. The source of her inundation is perfectly legal and every bit as addictive as any prescribed pill. Junk food, Skittles and Sweet Tarts to be exact, are the depicted woman’s drug of choice – a product as deadly in large amounts as any pill, according to sophomore Marta Shakhazizian, who composed this image as a part of her anti-obesity campaign titled Junk Kills.

Junk Kills juxtaposes the seriousness of antidrug or antismoking campaigns with the colorfulness of pop art to highlight the dangers of unhealthy eating, Shakhazizian says. From a young woman snorting Pixie Stick sugar to a young man drinking poison – a big gulp with a toxic symbol painted over it – her photographs highlight her messages about the importance of healthy eating in a way that she hopes engages people. To date, her work has been featured on Buzzfeed, various blogs, bulletin boards throughout the university and at the Clinton Global Initiative University conference.

While Shakhazizian officially created Junk Kills last year, she says for as long as she can remember she has had an idea for a photograph. She says the image of a person pretending to smoke a French fry like a cigarette and drinking a bottle of soda as if it were alcohol had been in her head for years. She received a flyer for First Step, a program within the College of Health Sciences that sponsors ideas to promote healthy living, on her first day of freshman year at the university, and in that moment, she knew she had found the perfect portal to make her vision come to life.

Courtesy of Marta Shakhazizian
Shakhazizian began added facts and statistics to her images after receiving feedback from the First Step competition.

“I put myself in the photo,” Shakhazizian says. “I put the camera on a timer, used bed sheets as a backdrop, entered it into the contest and advanced. They gave me more funding and asked me to make more photos – that was when I realized that this could become a campaign as opposed to one picture.”

Shakhazizian says she wanted to make a campaign that was “accessible and colorful” as opposed to some of the more graphic and gruesome campaigns.

“I wanted to make something pop arty – something that would make people drawn in, so they soak in and get the messages as opposed to turning away like those antismoking campaigns,” Shakhazizian says. “I wanted it be viewed as art in the end.”

One of Shakhazizian’s biggest supporters at First Step has been Jenny Reed, the program coordinator at the Health Sciences Dean’s Office. As an aspiring writer, Reed says she thinks they bonded because they were both feeling a little out of place in the College of Health Sciences.

Shakhazizian was the only freshman to participate in the First Step program last year. Reed says the program took the top ten teams and allocated each of them $500 to spend in any way they chose bearing in mind that they needed to create a poster depicting their obesity solutions.

At the end of the year, the general consensus among the First Step panelists judging Shakhazizian’s presentation was positive with the exception of one particularly vocal judge.

“It was probably a swift kick, but it strengthened her position behind her work,” Reed says.

The following year, Shakhazizian came back and won third place having incorporated more scientific data into her images, Reed said. Shakhazizian can take the criticism now, Reed says.

Shakhazizian says she spends days, weeks and sometimes months brainstorming ideas before a photo shoot. When she received the initial $500 funding, she turned to her friend’s father, Sean McCormick of Caspari McCormick Advertising, for help. McCormick allowed her access to his studio and shot the photos for her.

While Shakhazizian does not shoot the pictures, she is in charge of all of the remaining details that go into creating the images. She says her funding goes toward purchasing candy and supplies for props. When she walks into the studio, she says she knows exactly how she wants the lighting to look, how to angle the models and what graphics she will add in later.

Shakhazizian is meticulous when it comes to composing an image. She says she spends approximately 45 minutes setting up each image and captures approximately 30 shots of each model to choose from.

“Even something that someone wouldn’t see as distracting from the photo – frosting hanging in a way that I don’t like it – I have to fix,” Shakhazizian says. “I have to go through and make sure everything is looking right.”

Her models are friends that she’s asked to help bring her vision to life. Stephanie Petrison, 18, is a family friend prominently featured in the campaign. In one photo, a frosted hand chokes Petrison and in another, she has two X’s over her eyes and a lollipop for a mouth.

Courtesy of Marta Shakhazizian
Shakhazizian’s work will be displayed at the university’s STAR campus this June.

Petrison says she never knows what she is in for when she shows up to a shoot. She says Shakhazizian finds interesting ways to have models act, sit or stand, and the photos range from serious to comical.

Petrison says participating in Shakhazizian’s work has changed her perspective on food.

“I think I’m a teenager – I can do whatever I want,” Petrison says. “But she’s helped broaden my view and remember what [eating junk food] costs.”

Petrision says she plans on continuing to do as much as she can to help spread the word about Junk Kills.

For the past two years, some of Shakhazizian’s most notable exposure came when she attended the Clinton Global University (CGI U) conference. The conference, held at Arizona State University this past March, brought together more than 1,000 “future leaders” to discuss challenges to global problems, according to CGI U’s website.

She described the experience as one of the best of her life because the conference gave her an opportunity to network with people from all over the world.

“I got to speak about Junk Kills,” Shakhazizian says. “They had the pictures on the big screen before Jimmy Kimmel and Bill Clinton came out – I was floored.”

She says many of the connections she has made have been the direct result of her attendance at CGI U, including an individual who wanted to feature her work on Buzzfeed. While the Buzzfeed post that appeared this past March was a step in the right direction, she says she is still waiting for her campaign to go viral.

“That’s what I’m sitting here itching for,” Shakhazizian says.

In the mean time, Shakhazizian says she is trying to get as much exposure as she can. Reed has arranged a gallery of Shakhazizian’s work to appear at Science, Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) campus in June. Shakhazizian says she hopes to branch out more to the art community by displaying her work in galleries and exhibits at other schools.

While Shakhazizian is unsure if her work will always be focused on nutrition, she says she foresees herself continuing to create art that promotes social change. With more worldwide deaths from obesity than starvation, she says she worries about the future of her generation’s health.

“Our generation is one of the first to really grow up on the majority of our food being processed,” Shakhazizian says. “The current elderly generation, they didn’t grow up on the food we have. The FDA allows these extremely chemically-laden food we eat, but we don’t have evidence that they are safe. We’ll have to find out.”

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