Profile: JR, the People’s Artist
Known for his black-and-white portrait photo installations, influential French photographer-poster artist-activist JR is what we call the people’s artist.
The tools may be simple – paper and glue – but the concept is ingenious. Take people’s portraits and instantly print them on giant posters, which they can then paste anywhere they want using wheat paste and a brush to share an idea, project or experience. In this way, participants appropriate the artwork. More than the photo, what fascinates 32-year-old artist JR are the artistic process and people’s involvement. Our friends at Art Republik bring us the story of this artist, whom they are calling the “People’s Artist”.
A collective adventure, each of his projects calls for audience participation, where people play a vital role not just as spectators but also become the subjects and the actors who choose how much impact the photo installation will have. Launched in 2011 after winning the TED Prize that came with a $100,000 grant to pursue one wish to change the world, his ‘Inside Out’ project that invited people to become part of an art piece, having their pictures taken by JR or his team or sending their own portraits to him to print, has taken on a life of its own, spreading to communities in which he has never stepped foot.
Now with over 200,000 participants in more than 130 countries worldwide, it has become perhaps the world’s largest participatory art project and proof that art is needed in places we never imagine, even among people struggling for survival. And they don’t just look at it – they make it. “The concept of ownership runs through most of my projects,” JR notes. “For ‘Inside Out’, the audience and participants are local – it’s people creating an art project and expressing themselves in their communities at a global scale. Once the work is done, it belongs to the people and environment. People are free to tear it down or not. ‘Inside Out: Tunisia’ is a perfect example of freedom of expression in my work. The locals tore down the posters, tasting democracy for the first time in a long time. ‘Inside Out’ has helped hundreds of thousands of people across the world make statements with their faces.”
JR has established a unique model based around financial freedom and autonomy. Except for the rare exception, he turns down offers of corporate sponsorship, refusing support from brands, institutions and NGOs. Therefore, he donated the TED Prize money to a foundation he created that runs social programs in the disadvantaged places he has worked, and instead funded ‘Inside Out’ by selling six photographs for $850,000. Having learnt how to manipulate the art market to serve his purposes, his gallery shows are in reality a means to an end. Photographing his installations in their environments to produce images to be sold in art galleries allows him to raise the money necessary to mount his large-scale public photography projects paying tribute to the faceless, invisible and misunderstood. In this way, he can stay close to the people and on the streets in what he calls the largest art gallery in the world, attracting the attention of passers-by who are not typical museum visitors.
“Displaying work in public is the best way to get your work seen by many people,” he admits. “I love connecting with the architecture of the city instead of trying to do the largest photo. My work belongs to everyone in that I don’t own public property. Once I paste something up, the work is subject to its environment. But my public work gives birth to books that find themselves in libraries and stores and gallery works that end up in museums and in the hands of collectors. I don’t collaborate with brands or companies in order to maintain creative control over my work. I sell gallery pieces to fund future projects. It’s the purest model I’ve found so far.”
Acting as a witness for a community, JR’s artistic process has become a platform for political discourse as he pastes his posters in the actual landscapes of crises and seeks out the involvement of the populations he defends. He takes a stand and forces us to see things we’d rather ignore. His work has always been about connecting people and the possibility of coexistence. He discovered the unifying power of art following the French riots in 2005. It all started with the controversial, unauthorized ‘Portrait of a Generation’ street exhibition where he photographed the inhabitants of Les Bosquets ghetto in impoverished Montfermeil and Clichy-sous-Bois in the suburbs of Paris, then pasted their portraits in the capital’s bourgeois districts. His photos of suburban youth making grotesque and funny faces as a caricature of enraged social misfits, transformed into giant posters, made known their existence and let them regain control of their image after their reputations had been tarnished by the press.
From then on, public walls became JR’s natural working space. In Brazil, for his ‘Women Are Heroes’ project highlighting the dignity of women often victims of war, poverty and oppression in the poverty-stricken, drug-and-crime-ridden Morro da Providência favela in Rio de Janeiro, he created images so big that they couldn’t be ignored and attracted media attention, thereby allowing the people’s voices and stories to be heard.
A master of manipulating images in context, JR basically works at the scale of a city block or an entire neighborhood, always adapting to the area’s architecture matched with his great eye for composition and staging. Enjoying being everywhere yet nowhere at once, he remains elusive and carefully hides his identity, disguised in his trademark black sunglasses and fedora hat and going only by his pseudonym, as he believes that his portraits are about the places he visits and the people in them, not himself. And their narratives will always be stronger than his.
Although JR may be based in Paris and New York, he is constantly on the road. He has wrapped the walls, floors and rooftops of public and outdoor spaces with gigantic photographic murals, sometimes illegally in a form of civil disobedience, in over 8,000 locations worldwide, including historical monuments like the Pantheon in Paris, the New York City Ballet’s David H. Koch Theatre, Times Square, an abandoned immigrant hospital on Ellis Island, a container ship in Le Havre, a footbridge in Hong Kong, wooden structures by the sea in Fukushima following a tsunami that destroyed part of a nuclear plant, the slums of Nairobi, both sides of the Israel-West Bank separation barrier and buildings and billboards in Tunis just after the dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali stepped down. The list goes on: South Africa, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Haiti, Cuba, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, China, Cambodia and India. He explains, “At first, I was drawn to places by what I heard in the media. Getting to know a population and working with them to paste their portraits up changes the way you see yourself and has helped the locals regain ownership of their identity. The media often distorts what is actually going on in remote locations of the world. I go to learn first-hand and help communities regain control of their reputations.”
JR always injects an element of surprise, popping up where people least expect him, but choosing his venues deliberately and preparing his images meticulously. Financed by a private patron, his ongoing Pantheon project is unique as instead of the usual giant ads placed by luxury brands to mask the city’s construction sites that help to fund the renovations, he plastered the enormous cover surrounding the dome’s drum and the monument’s interiors with thousands of anonymous portraits taken in a mobile photo booth truck or sent to him via his website. Thus, the masses can finally rub shoulders with France’s great men like Voltaire or Victor Hugo, showing that humans are created equal.
Of humble origins, JR was born in 1983 on the western outskirts of Paris to a Tunisian mother and a father of mixed European heritage, and never studied art. At age 12, he began working at weekend street markets helping elderly salespeople unload trucks and, as a teenager, was often arrested for juvenile infractions. Then he began to do graffiti, tagging his name on walls, rooftops and metro trains, before dropping out of high school. He worked odd jobs and took classes to finish his diploma. He recalls, “It was the world of graffiti and exploring the concealed alcoves and summits of Paris, all to say, ‘I was here. I exist.’” When he was 17, he found a point-and-shoot Samsung camera that someone had left on the Paris metro, began photographing himself and his friends tagging and holding spray cans, and pasted up photocopies of his pictures in what he called ‘Expo 2 Rue’ (street exhibition), his first organised project.
“I documented those escapades with that camera and wanted to share them directly with people,” JR says. “I guess that’s how I found my medium of paper and glue. I would paste my portfolio of photographs in the streets of Paris and around Europe. This allowed me to cut out the traditional world of galleries and getting my work approved by that industry. I was in direct contact with the public. And when the images were scratched or washed away, my tagged frame remained: I was here.” After getting into trouble with the French authorities, he explored street art around Europe before returning to Paris to tell other people’s stories. So while he may have started pasting on the streets in 2000; now, by pasting other people’s works, he’s actually tagging their names and providing them with the means to express themselves.
JR describes his creative process, “My subject is most important in starting a new project. My work is about the people – a specific population. Pre-production for each major project takes the most time: What is the history of the people? What is the significance of this city in conjunction with the people? I have to make sure that the people are even interested in participating in my work because once we have finished pasting, the work belongs to that society. I make several visits to the place before we start pasting. My work is firstly about the subject’s cultural past and present. Secondly, it’s about the reactions it provokes among the public.” His job is to raise questions, but he doesn’t provide the answers.
Harnessing the power of the Internet and social media, he uses them to build teams and assemble volunteers for his projects, and even draws inspiration from what people post about his work. “Social media is really important to my work and followers, particularly Instagram,” JR remarks. “It allows my work to travel around the world freely. It’s a new type of public space. My favorite part of it is that I can actually gather people and find walls via Instagram. I always find someone who writes a comment and whose window is overlooking a wall I am pasting… the world is so small! I’m also lucky that my close friends and family make up my team and we’re able to be flexible to make things work fast.”
Having recently closed two exhibitions last April at the Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation and Galerie Perrotin in Hong Kong, JR has just released ‘The Ghosts of Ellis Island’, a book created with cartoonist Art Spiegelman, and premiered ‘Les Bosquets’, his latest short film in collaboration with Lauren Lovette, Lil Buck, the New York City Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet and Pharrell Williams, at the Tribeca Film Festival. A mix of video archives, choreography and testimony, the movie is a continuation of ‘Portrait of a Generation’. In the pipeline is a solo show in September at Galerie Perrotin in Paris and a short film and book on ‘Unframed – Ellis Island’. He concludes, “I feel that the role of an artist is to exercise the freedom to try anything without the fear of failure. A lot of my projects and works hang from a thread at one point or another when everything can fall apart, but then you think everything will be fine and you scramble, and something works out – that’s kind of our motto at the studio. As an artist, you can’t be afraid to just throw things on the wall and see what sticks.”
Text by Y-Jean Mun-Delsalle
Photography © JR-ART.NET / Courtesy of Galerie Perrotin