Street artist JR creates photographic Art for global “Social Activism”

Street artist JR creates photographic Art for global “Social Activism”

JR the 2011 TED Prize winner

JR exhibits his photographs in the street that he qualifies as “the largest art gallery in the world.”

His work successfully mixes Art and Activism, talks about commitment, freedom, identity and limit. But however successfully JR’s installations work as art, they have a strong and striking social conscience, too. The magazine Le Monde has described his work as …..”revealing humanity.”

The Parisian guerrilla street artist eschews museums, favouring the crumbling walls of the world’s slums to the austere halls of its museums. Guerrilla art is about provocation and pushing limits to start dialogue. It has the capacity to engage and break down barriers in ways art in galleries or museums does not.

The audience is often those who are least likely to be exposed to art. When guerilla art is practiced as is by JR, the work is not about him but about the community where it is placed — in subject, in execution, and in enjoyment

It is something of a point of honour never to ask permission from the authorities. He exhibits freely in the streets of the world, catching the attention of people who are not the museum visitors.

JR is a man routinely touted as the hippest contemporary street artist since Banksy. Renowned street artist Shepard Fairey stated …. “JR is the most ambitious street artist working.”

JR : photo by Antoine Doyen

JR is a 27-year-old Parisian of mixed race (he has Tunisian and eastern European blood), from a middle-class background. He never reveals his full name because he believes it “would add nothing”

In fact, JR’s anonymity is crucial to the integrity of his work: this is an artist who prides himself on operating under the radar, on creating dazzling installations in unexpected places through the force of his personality and vision. “The fact that I stay anonymous means I can exhibit wherever I want, No one knows my name, so it’s easy for me to travel.”

Paradoxically, perhaps, the photographer without a name creates extraordinary art by restoring the identities of the nameless.

JR considers himself as “neither a street artist nor a photographer”. JR calls himself a “photograffeur” and has worked in the world’s poorest places has caught the worlds’ attention.

All of the money he makes from the sale of his work is ploughed back into his projects so that JR can ensure his continued independence. “The finance is a key part,” he says. “You wouldn’t take it in the same way if I did it with L’Oréal.”

To carry out his projects, he uses photography but also video, prints on paper or tarpaulins, urban spaces, books and especially social links.

I would like to bring art to improbable places, create projects so huge with the community that they are forced to ask themselves questions. I want to try to create images of troubled hot spots that offer different points of view from the ones we see in the worldwide media which are often caricatures

Working with a team of volunteers in various urban environments, he mounts enormous black-and-white photo canvases that spread on the buildings of the slums around Paris, on the walls in the Middle East, on broken bridges in Africa, and across the favelas of Brazil.

These images become part of the local landscape and capture people’s attention and imagination around the world.

As a 17yr old teenager, he started out as a graffiti artist but began taking photographs when he found a camera on the Paris Métro in 2001.

In his first major project, in 2001 and 2002, JR toured and photographed street art around Europe, tracking the people who communicate their messages to the world on walls. His first large-format postings began appearing on walls in Paris and Rome in 2003. His first book, Carnet de rue par JR, about street artists, appeared in 2005.

In the aftermath of the 2004 riots in the Parisian suburbs, JR chose to exhibit in the grand central districts of his home town, pasting up photographs on the walls of the Marais.

2004 – 2007 Project : Bosquets Paris

Portrait of a Generation featured close-up pictures of the young residents of the banlieues pulling funny faces through a fish-eye lens. Instead of the immigrant thugs of popular imagination, the Parisians who walked past JR’s photographs were confronted with a more human image.

“Most of the media shots of the rioters were taken with a long lens,” explains JR, who comes from a mixed-race background with Tunisian and Eastern European heritage.

“I used a 28mm lens to capture them really close up.”

After observing the people he met and listening to their message, JR pasted their portraits up in the streets and basements and on the roof tops of Paris. This illegal project became official when the City of Paris put JR’s photos up on buildings.

Right at the beginning of his projects, JR wanted to bring art into the street: “In the street, we reach people who never go to museums.”

After the first unauthorized exhibit on the walls of the Cité des Bosquets housing project, JR returned and set himself up of this housing project and the neighbouring one, the Cité de la Forestière, both in the epicentre of the 2005 riots in the French suburbs.

The first portraits were rapidly exhibited on the walls of the least popular neighbourhoods of the capital, in the east of Paris. These photos provoked the passerby in as much as they questioned the social and media representation of a whole generation that for some is only to be seen relegated to the outskirts of the capital.

2007 Project : Face2Face Middle East


JR decided to go to the Middle-East to figure out why Palestinians and Israelis couldn’t find a way to get along together. This holy place for Judaism, Christianity and Islam – where you can see mountains, sea, deserts and lakes, love and hate, hope and despair embedded together.

He concluded that the people look the same; they speak almost the same language, like twin brothers raised in different families. A religious covered woman has her twin sister on the other side. A farmer, a taxi driver, a teacher, has his twin brother in front of him. And he is endlessly fighting with him. It’s obvious, but they don’t see that.

We must put them face to face. We want that, at last, everyone laughs and thinks when he sees the portrait of the other and his own portrait.

JR successfully mounted what is believed to be the largest illegal photo exhibition in the world.

The Face2Face project made portraits of Palestinians and Israelis doing the same job and to post them face to face, in huge formats, in unavoidable places, on the Israeli and the Palestinian sides.

JR says he is not political. Rather than being an “artist with a cause”, he is “an artist who causes people to think”. He has never caused more ructions than he did in Israel and Palestine, where he pasted photographs of three religious worthies — a rabbi, an imam and a priest — pulling silly faces.

JR put their pictures everywhere: in Ramallah, in Tel Aviv and, most famously, on the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank. He was arrested by the Israeli army for his trouble-making.

Returning later, JR put up enormous photos of Israelis and Palestinians face to face in eight Palestinian and Israeli cities on either side of the Separation Barrier.

The message was simple but arresting: when you are mugging it up for the camera, what brings you together is more in evidence than what sets you apart. “It’s about breaking down barriers,” JR says. “With humour, there is life.”

The Face2Face project tried to show that beyond what separates them, Israelis and Palestinians are enough alike to be able to understand one another

Palestinian side

Israeli side

For the artist, this artistic act is first and foremost a human project: “The heroes of the project are all those who, on both sides of the wall, allowed me to paste the portraits on their houses.” .

Israeli and Palestinian men and women who have the same jobs accepted to laugh or cry, to scream or pull faces in front of JR’s lens. The project’s goal was to show through images that art and laughter combined can break down prejudice.

In a very sensitive context, he is in favour of a solution for which two countries, Israel and Palestine would live peacefully within safe and internationally recognized borders. All the bilateral peace projects (Clinton/Taba, Ayalon/Nussibeh, Geneva Accords) are converging in the same direction. Hopefully this project will contribute to a better understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.

Today, “Face to face” is necessary.

Within a few years, we will come back for “Hand in hand”.

“It was frightening sometimes,” he admits. “There is a real conflict going on there that I was very aware of. But I was never saying, ‘I want to change this or that.’ The reaction of everyday people to what I was doing was great. They would give me the walls of their houses to do it. The art made a lot of sense to people. Pasting a picture of an Israeli and a Palestinian together on a wall in Ramallah is really quite a strong thing to see.”

The action was more than an artistic success. The imam and the rabbi who featured in the photographs became friends. They even travelled to Europe together to paste their own photos in Geneva and deliver a lecture in Paris. But JR makes no grand claims for his work. Indeed, he admits every other minute: “I know what I do does not change the world . . . it can only make a difference to how a few people look at the world.”


Project : Women are Heroes

In 2008, JR embarked for a long international trip for “Women”, a project in which he underlines the dignity of women who are often the targets of conflicts.

“I was interested in women because I realised in the projects I’d done before – most of the time in the kind of places I was going to – it was men on the street, but it’s actually the women who are the ones holding the community together.”


Women are Heroes introduces women who sometimes look death in the face, who go from laughter to tears, who are generous, have nothing and yet share, who have had a painful past and long to build a happy future. In seeking what is common in their gaze, JR tried to get closer to what is universal: the human being.

2008 Project : Morro da Providencia Favela

In Brazil, the peculiar conditions of the favelas (shanty-towns) of Rio de Janeiro encouraged encounters with women for whom crime, violent death of someone close or of a son, and gratuitous repression form part of everyday life.

In 2008 JR went to Morro da Providencia, the oldest and most perilous drug ridden Favela in Rio de Janeiro, to paste portraits of its female residents on the sides of 40 houses in which they lived.

Despite fears for his safety, he managed to take portraits and paste the images of women and children onto the tin walls. The results were mesmerising: a shanty-town on a hill transformed into a living collage.


“I saw them in the media,” he said. “But I wanted to see them with my own eyes. You realise when you do go to these places that there is no Art. My aim is to show that art can work anywhere”.

“The Favela where I went is right in the centre of Rio. There are no social institutions there, no NGOs. It’s all owned by the traffickers. It’s the worst place you can imagine.

“You can’t even get a taxi to take you there… There are kids with guns and bulletproof jackets on the street. It’s like finding yourself in the middle of a war.” In fact, the favela is so lawless that journalists are banned and no NGO operates there.

JR simply drove himself to the centre of the shanty town and started chatting about what he wanted to do to anyone who approached him. He had been drawn to the favela by news reports concerning the murder of three innocent young men caught up in the brutal turf wars between drug traffickers and corrupt military police.

“Everything is about eye contact,” JR says. “The first thing they have to know is that there’s no brand behind it, that’s really important… I’m not trying to use the favela to advertise Red Bull or BMX bikes, and I’m not a journalist either.

“I could speak for hours about the origins of the poster technique, but out there, there is not the same frame of reference. You have to go straight to the point. There’s this person in front of you and there’s no fucking around. That’s how I test my projects: if they get it, it’s going to work.”

Almost immediately, the women of the favela understood what JR was trying to do. He asked anyone interested in participating to come along to an informal meeting.

“The women who came were the ones related to the three kids who had been killed: the grandmother, the mother, the best friend. They reappropriated my project to tell their story.”

But they accepted to have the biggest exhibition in the world on their houses. By just doing that, you are showing that things are possible . . . although I would never say I am changing the world.

The end result was startlingly beautiful: a faceless community with its humanity regained.

The distinctively monochrome eyes and faces were positioned looking towards the centre of Rio, a constant reminder of the grinding poverty that exists on the doorstep of one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.

“I asked each woman to give me something real,” says JR, recalling the process. And it is true that, in contrast to the usual media images of grief and despair, the women project a pride in where they come from and a certainty about their own identity.

“The photo is the story,” he says. “They all gave me really strong eyes because they knew they would be facing the city.”


In April 2009, JR returned to Brazil, not only to organise a major exhibition in the streets of Rio and a local museum, but also to inaugurate the «La Casa Amarela» (Yellow House), a cultural center specially for children, right in the heart of the favela.

Through this project, JR wishes to create a zone of freedom and creativity, accessible to all inhabitants of Morro da Providência, so that culture will never leave the area again.

2008 / 2009 Kenya

In 2008 JR had visited Kibera to take photographs of its residents.

After the mayhem of the 2009 election riots,JR returned to Kenya to plaster their portraits on train carriages and on the roofs of their houses. JR and his band of 10 or so unpaid assistants turned Kibera, one of Africa’s biggest slums, into a vast exhibition space.

JR and his band of 10 or so unpaid assistants turned Kibera, one of Africa’s biggest slums, into a vast exhibition space

By using waterproof vinyl material, he ensured his art might have a practical purpose.

“The more you go to places like Kibera, the more you realise that the people don’t understand you,” he says, in his faultless, breathless English. “Food is their first need. They don’t do art just for the love of art. It has to make sense. By making their roofs rainproof, what we did made sense. They loved it.”

The exhibition also looks beautiful. JR has a thing for eyes and noses and mouths. Viewed from above, the effect is a kind of physiognomical carnival — one that emphasises the vitality of the photographic subjects.

“Normally,” says JR, “you have to be very famous to have your picture blown up so big. But these are just ordinary people, with everyday stories.”

Reconnecting with the subjects he photographed over a year earlier in one of the largest slums in Africa—at the start of his mission to portray on a grand scale the unseen and unempowered women of the world, the reunion was an especially poignant moment for the artist.

With the help of enthusiastic residents, JR managed to cover 2,000 square meters of local rooftops with photos of the eyes and faces of the women of Kibera, giving them a monumental voice and presence in a city where their own existence is often marginalized.

In order to further spread his message throughout the massive city, JR also encapsulated the local train that runs through the area twice daily with the eyes of local women alongside those of women photographed in Brazil, India, Cambodia, and other parts of Africa whose stories and images reveal a global solidarity of plight and purpose.

The pinnacle of the experience, however, comes when the eyes on the moving train align with the static bottom halves of the subject’s faces posted along the train’s embankment, completing the smiling portraits for a split second in rapid succession before moving on to the next village where the experience is repeated.

For JR, the art train travels on the rails of humanism. Each car is an artistic commitment, often controversial and deeply humanist. Of course, it didn’t change the world, but sometimes a single laugher in an unexpected place makes you dream that it could.

2009 Project : Liberia

In Kenya, Sudan, Sierra-Leone and Liberia, the violence suffered by women during armed conflicts in Africa is the most extreme expression of the discrimination of which they are victims in peacetime. In going to meet them, JR bears witness to their strength, their courage and their struggle: to resist in order to exist later.

2009 Project : Soweto Sth Africa

In this project JR posters buildings in Soweto with portraits of the neighborhood’s residents.

Soweto was originally a sort of slum camp for blacks who couldn’t live near the white-owned businesses and houses they worked in. Parts of Soweto are still among the poorest in Johannesburg.

JR focuses on a playful, human element in places where individuals are too easily overshadowed by the politics and history of their homes.

2009 Project : Cambodia

In Cambodia, JR met women who had for three years been threatened with expulsion by a local property company in the quarter of central Day Krohom, in Phnom Penh.

The country was experiencing a boom in property prices and land was being cornered by the government and property developers, in order to rebuild with new housing.

Since then, the women photographed have been thrown out.

2010 Project : India

In New Delhi, JR met women with very different backgrounds and lifestyles, from a variety of social classes and religions. His aim was not to limit himself to commenting on caste, but rather to meet women with the will and strength to bounce back after experiencing great traumas.

In their own way they are heroines, with their will to initiate and benefit from development in their own countries, and their incredible capacity to enhance their status today.

JR opened his Women Are Heroes project to the cinema in directing a feature film made up of images of the pasting phase of the installations and interviews of the women. Through this documentary film, the artist shows us how he installed the portraits of the women in urban spaces and the reactions of the inhabitants.

He explains that : this film gathers the images and the words of the women he met, the day to day flow of their lives and experiences to create, through art, a reality different from the one shown in the media.

This first film was part of the Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival in 2010. It was programmed in during La Semaine de la Critique (International Critics’ Week), and competed for the Golden Camera award.

Project : Wrinkles of the City

2009 Project : Cartagena Spain

Wrinkles of the City is the materialization of the encounter between JR, the city of Cartagena, Spain, and its oldest inhabitants who are the memory incarnate of the city, marked by the scars of its history, economic expansion and socio-cultural mutations.

While meeting and photographing the elderly so he could put their portraits up on the walls, JR imaged their wrinkles, the furrows of their brows, as the marks of time, the traces of their lives that are linked with the history of the city.

For JR, these older people are the living memory of a city changing faster than they themselves age. For him, every one of their wrinkles and each day that goes by are inscribed in the buildings and in the streets of old Cartagena that provided JR with a heterogeneous architecture.

2010 Project : Shanghai

In 2010, The Wrinkles of the City project reached Shanghai, China, as part of the Biennial at The Shanghai Art Museum.

For the Shanghai Biennial, Galerie Magda Danysz offered a fascinating thought in a city that has witnessed the establishment of the Communist Party, World War II, Japanese occupation, The Liberation, Mao Zedong victory over General Chiang Kai-Shek’s troops, the Cultural Revolution, and the Great Leap Forward, all of which has shaped the development of Shanghai.

The project starts with portraits of elderly people who represent the memory of a city past.

JR interviews each person and records the changes witnessed in the city. Then these portraits, printed in monumental sizes, are pasted in the very same city in various places that inspire JR and represent the city’s heritage.

Memory can stumble and fall – disappear any minute as the elderly leave us – JR shows us that it is important not to forget what the elderly have to pass on to younger generations. Without any judgment, JR just gives us bits of history in an artistic, yet poetic, social and above all, human way

JR Shanghai exhibition at “18Gallery on the Bund”.


2009 Project : London

JR was one of the six artists who were selected to exhibit their work on the front of the Tate Modern in London 2010

Over the years, it seems that JR’s images have become larger. While the scale of his artwork on the Tate was obviously determined by the size of the building, there were additional JR images around London during the northern summer that confirmed his ability to position a very large work in a really fascinating way.

2009 Project : St Louis, Paris


As part of “Women are Heroes” project, JR covered the Ile St Louis’s walls with 1500 m of pictures ! = 15,000 rolls of paper to achieve the most gigantic ephemeral piece of art of all times.

The installation is the third part of a series all done with a 28mm camera and are black and white portraits of women from Africa, Brazil, Cambodia, and Cambodia. JR chose over 70 women from 4 continents who lived with daily violence, poverty, war and discrimination.

2010 Project : Unframed

JR is best known for taking photographs and pasting them on huge structures all over the world. His pieces are often a reflection of the town they’re completed in. The world-renowned street artist went in a new direction with his latest project, he titled “Unframed.”

Instead of using his own photos, he used images from other photographers and pasted them out of context.Through this process, he celebrates a melting-pot of cultures and creates wonderful contrasts.

All the pieces were completed in Vevey, Switzerland, as part of the Images Festival.


JR studio Paris

Most graffiti artists start out by tagging their name on empty walls and tube carriages. JR does something different: he takes those who live on the margins of mainstream society and he gives them back their individuality.

Paradoxically, perhaps, the photographer without a name creates extraordinary art by restoring the identities of the nameless.

However modest he remains, JR will have to accept that he is now a star: the most exciting new “outsider” artist since Banksy. And with a certain fame comes money. The success of the sale of Ladj Ly will not be a one-off. How will the artist respond?

“If you look at all my projects since I was 17 years old,” he says, “they have always grown in relation to the worth of my work at auctions. So I’m not getting rich or buying a big house. When you go to these places and you’re with these people, you never think about getting rich. I’m always thinking of how we can do more with these projects. All the money is going back into the work.

“When I explained to them in the favela that my work sells for a lot of money, nobody tried to kidnap me. Nobody begged from me. When I told them I don’t pay my models for posing for me, they were okay. I explained to them, ‘If I pay you, we lose the whole soul of the project.’ People who want their stories to be heard will do it without getting paid. Anyway, they get paid in other ways.”

This is not an empty promise. In Rio, JR has created a lasting legacy of his exhibition there, a cultural centre that opens in April. It will be a place where the mini-JRs of the favela can post photographs on the walls. He is planning a similar project for Kibera.

Herein lies the appeal of his work. In a post-crash world, JR sells no diamond skulls. His engagement and edification of the world’s poorest is not only laudable, but artistically interesting. Indeed, the trade in his pictures — created in Third World slums, bought by affluent westerners, reinvested in the slums — makes him a Robin Hood figure. Moreover, because of the size and situation of his images, JR competes with the billboard ads of Coca-Cola and Levi for attention. This is not merely a by-product of his work, but a theme.

“People don’t really understand why I paste, when I’m not selling something,” he says. But of course he knows exactly what his brand is: people.

JR creates “Pervasive Art” that spreads uninvited on the buildings of the slums around Paris, on the walls in the Middle-East, on the broken bridges in Africa or the favelas in Brazil.

People who often live with the bare minimum discover something absolutely unnecessary. And they don’t just see it, they make it. Some elderly women become models for a day; some kids turn artists for a week. In that Art scene, there is no stage to separate the actors from the spectators.

After these local exhibitions, the images are transported to London, New York, Berlin or Amsterdam where people interpret them in the light of their own personal experience.

As he remains anonymous and doesn’t explain his huge full frame portraits of people making faces, JR leaves the space empty for an encounter between the subject/protagonist and the passer-by/interpreter.

2010 TED Award

On October 20, 2010, JR won the coveted TED prize for 2011.

“The TED Prize, now in its 6th year, is awarded annually to an exceptional individual who receives $100,000 and, much more important, ‘One Wish to Change the World.’

JR joins the ranks of Jamie Oliver, Bill Clinton, E.O. Wilson, and U2’s Bono, previous prize recipients.

For most recipients, the value of the award has less to do with the money than with the opportunity it grants the winner to make a “wish”: to devote the funds to a humanitarian project that will almost inevitably draw donations and other help from the organization’s corporate partners and influential supporters.

The chef Jamie Oliver, the 2010 prize winner, recently proposed setting up an international effort to further his campaign against obesity; Mr. Clinton’s wish has channeled significant resources toward the creation of a rural health system in Rwanda.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. It started out (in 1984) as a conference bringing together people from those three worlds. Since then its scope has become ever broader. TED sought someone who has a track record for changing the world in innovative ways, who hopefully has mobility and charisma, and who works on a global level, and JR does all those things.

While a seemingly unconventional recipient, JR’s “ Pervasive Art” matches the creativity and innovative spirit of TED’s community, and his art inspires people to view the world differently –- and want to change it for the better.

JR’s ” Wish ” , or goal to change the world for the better, will be announced at TED in Long Beach, California, at the end of February, 2011.

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