Faces of Humanity
by: Blaine Skrainka
July 10, 2013
A visionary has the audacity to dream coupled with the extraordinary will to push further than most think possible. JR is a globally minded photographer and artist whose work can be found selectively scattered across “the biggest gallery in the world”–the streets of Paris and New York, favelas of Brazil, rooftops in Africa, and war-torn walls of Israel and Palestine. JR is a street artist with a gallery that knows no boundaries. Ironically, JR’s exceptional pieces are all in black and white, yet he highlights the nuances of a world full of shades of grey. What makes his work particularly stunning is not just the evocative images he displays, but the stories of human dignity that are conveyed through his pieces.
JR began tagging the streets of Paris when he was fifteen years old. At the time, he had no intentions to monumentally change the world, he was just leaving a mark that simply conveyed, “I was here.” He may not have realized it at the time, but the idea that street art could remind the world of human existence has since served as a theme throughout JR’s storied career. The evolution of his style continued when he found an abandoned camera in the subway and began shooting his friends as they littered the city walls with their distinctive tags. By the time he was seventeen, JR began pasting photos on those urban walls, and since then the world has become his canvas.
What started as simple graffiti began to emerge as something more inspired and influential. As JR examined the tumultous events happening worldwide, he attempted to balance oversimplified images propagated in the news with his engrossing commentary captured in his portraits. He recounts, “I chose a lot of the destinations by watching the media, and wanted to go into those places by myself – have my own eye on it.” Back home in Paris, the city was burning. In 2005, after the deaths of two boys from the projects who were running from police fearing interrogation, riots broke out all over the country. JR was disheartened at the portrayal of “criminals and thugs destroying their own environment.” He went back to these same neighborhoods and took portraits of kids being judged as hoodlums who “may not be angels, but are not monsters either!” With a 28mm camera, he took close-up shots of neighborhood boys making obscure and strange faces as to mimic the caricatures that the media had made out of them. Through JR’s art, the children of the ghettos were able to reclaim their own image and their dignity.
One of JR’s most poignant undertakings took him and his small team to the streets of Israel and Palestine, one of the most divided and places in the world. The buildup of Israeli housing continues to segregate the population and stir tensions, while rocket attacks from Islamist terrorist groups make peace seemingly impossible. Everyone knows the basic underpinnings of the conflict, but JR wondered, “Who are the real Palestinians and Israelis?” Like all of his projects, he took photos of the local people, and used wheatpaste to post the pieces to the walls. JR found Israelis and Palestinians with the same occupations and put their photos side by side. Onlookers asked what was going on, and he merely explained that they were doing an art project. When JR then asked the passersby whether they could differentiate between the subjects, most could not decipher which person was Israeli and which Palestinian. On one wall he pasted Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders next to each other, all with energetic smiles full of life and hope.
From Sierra Leone to India, and ten other nations around the globe, JR took his style to spread yet another important societal message. “Women are Heroes” was a campaign that enlisted local men to paste portraits–mothers, daughters and sisters–a tribute to the women who JR refers to as “the pillars of their communities.” One particularly symbolic piece was of a grandmother in Brazil. Her grandson and two other boys had been arrested by the army, but instead of being taken to the station, they were dropped off in a rival favela where they were brutally murdered. On the stairs where the kids were picked up by the authorities, JR pasted a giant portrait of the grandmother with her hand gently resting on her cheek in a thoughtful gaze. The riveting image is unforgettable to anyone who sees it whether in person, print or on the television. In this case, JR refused to talk to the media about the project. This was his clever way to get those outsiders to speak directly to the people, engage in a conversation and spread the message.
Street art is inherently ephemeral. Anyone can tear it down or tag it. Rain and wind can rip apart the portraits. This does not seem to bother JR too much, he says that his art belongs to the people. JR has always used neighborhood locals to help paste his works, but now his message will grow exponentially with his newest project, an open source global art collaboration called the Inside Out Project.
JR’s most recent adventure takes street art and social messages directly to the people. The Inside Out Project is a world- wide engagement where people take their own portraits and upload the images to the project website. Inside Out then returns a poster to the contributor to be pasted. There is no cost to participate, and according to JR, over 30,000 people have already joined in.
“People have pasted their images around the globe in places I have never been and have made it their own statement ... I have definitely learned that when you empower people and make them feel part of a community or a movement, people get creative. The project doesn’t use new technology, people could print and paste their photos already years or decades ago! But when you create the platform and the frame for it by printing for people, suddenly [it] releases the artist, the activist or even the ego out of them. Depending of the context where the person is from, the message changes. It’s like a mirror of society. Some use it as art, others as a weapon...”
With this new project, JR’s message goes beyond the art in the street; his ideas are uncovered throughout the photos and video that are shared on the web. When you see a pasted portrait, you may not initially understand why it is there. But then, you ask someone, initiating a dialogue about the issues represented by the particular piece of art. JR has stated, “I can’t save the world! The world is fucked up!”, but he can definitely change it for the better. A catalyst for conversation, his art reminds us all of the people that are too often for- gotten while highlighting the dignity in human life that all people want so strongly to feel and unveil.