ART IS POWER

French Street Artist JR Is Changing the World, One Photograph At a Time

The acclaimed ‘photograffeur,’ known for his Inside Out project and remarkable installations, discusses his craft and his new documentary at Cannes, which took top prize.

JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

CANNES, France – It is a blissful, summery afternoon on the Riviera. Inside the French pavilion, overlooking the yachts bobbing in the blue waters of the Mediterranean, JR sits before a large, comical poster for Faces Places, the Out-Of-Competition documentary that the artist co-directed with the film legend, Agnes Varda.

Note: It is not J.R. Ewing, the cowboy-tycoon from Dallas, that we are interviewing, as someone points out on the way to the pavilion—Larry Hagman, it turns out, is long dead—but a famed French street artist who has dubbed himself a photograffeur.

This play on words provides a snapshot of the 2011 TED Prize recipient’s career. All of 34, JR first expressed himself as a street or graffiti artist. He then took to photographing his contemporaries—after finding a camera in the Paris Metro, as the story goes. His fascination with photography grew, and it has now been put to use in this film.

Building upon his intrepid body of work, JR has, in the past, used his camera to shine a light on unsung heroes, to make political statements, and to give, in his words, people dignity all over the world. “Everyone is the same,” he tells me. With Varda as his guide, the nameless people of the countryside, the French ‘peasants,’ one could say, are now seen.

How very Nouvelle Vague.

Varda was doing that decades ago with film. Although he is over fifty years younger than her, JR has been using his camera in much the same way.

Consider his Portrait of a Generation series from 2006, or a collection of suburban photographs taken in Cite des Bosquets where the 2005 riots began in the Paris banlieue. JR posted photographs of the disposed locals in public in a law-defying attempt to put faces to the names of the downtrodden.

Whereas Banksy chose to make a statement on the apartheid facing Palestinians with his recently opened Walled-Off Hotel and Wall Museum in Bethlehem, JR posted portraits of Israelis and Palestinians face-to-face in eight Palestinian and Israeli cities. The project was called Face 2 Face.

With his help, queer activists have pasted their images on Russian Embassies, and orphans with AIDS have put theirs on the townships in Johannesburg. He has used the money he won for the TED Prize to fund his ongoing Inside Out project, which has empowered people in different communities worldwide to take their photographs and paste them in public as an act of defiance, from an image of a rebellious-looking woman underneath a state-sponsored billboard in Iran to protesters during New York City’s 2014 Million’s March holding up the eyes of Eric Garner pasted onto giant billboards.

“Image is part of the healing process,” he’s said.

No stranger to Cannes, in 2010 his film Women are Heroes was shown at the Festival. Now he is here again, co-directing with one of the heroines of the Nouvelle Vague, Ms. Varda.

The two of them are quite a sight.

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JR is wearing his signature dark glasses, which he doesn’t like to part with, it seems. It’s an interesting twist for a man that wants the individual to put his or herself, in particular their eyes, on display—although perhaps, in this case, it is to protect his own from Varda’s larger-than-life outfit.

Sporting a mismatching polka dot suit, the 88-year-old tries to get JR to remove his specs, for a moment. He concedes and pushes his sunglasses further down his nose to answer a question. Then he pops them back up.

He does nevertheless draw the eye, even if his camera typically casts it on everyone but him.

JR’s long, skinny legs, wrapped in jeans, bend out in front of him like those of a stick insect. His face is covered in dark stubble. His head is protected by a diminutive Trilby that tops an outfit completed by a shirt that has two personalities: half-blue and half-yellow, split down the middle by a row of neat buttons.

It almost resembles a work of art, the image of JR sitting next to his ultra-funky octogenarian co-director. It’s clear that one is trying to out-dress the other. Still, they are not here to talk about fashion but about their film.

In Faces Places, JR’s oeuvre of getting people to interact with photography, and to be featured in his signature giant black-and-white posters, is taken into the French countryside where the duo travel in his magical van, which doubles as a photography studio.

Varda thinks of this enterprise as his ‘entre’ into the countryside.

“JR is a human artist,” she says. “In France, at least, we know him in cities. I thought it would be a change for him to be in the villages, plus he has his magic truck.”

JR has done this kind of thing before—only much further from home. For his ongoing Inside Out project, he traveled through Tunisia with six photographers who took portraits of everyday people, using art to assist the embryo of Tunisian Democracy. The images were even posted over those of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who’d recently fled the country following months of protests.  

“For fifty years, the only portraits displayed in Tunisian streets were of autocratic rulers,” he has said. “Artocracy represents Tunisians regaining control of their destiny, their voice, and the right of their image,” he said on his website at the time.

Still, it is one of those moments that sticks with him.

“One of my biggest memories was is in Tunisia when I went there and people were pasting faces as part of my project. People in the street were scratching them down,” he recalls in Cannes.

The process shocked him.

“You would look at this and say, ‘Oh My God. This is horrible.’ It was horrible. It was the worst misfit between art and people,” he says. “An old man came. People pasting images said we are representing the people. The other people taking it down were saying no, these might be the next dictators. The old man said, ‘Let this happen because you have the right to paste them and they have the right to take them down. That is called Democracy, and it is the first time we are enjoying it.’”

There are parallels with Tunisia and Faces Places. “The first time people were taking them down was the first time people have the right to take them down in Tunisia,” he says. “In the same way, we look into how people reinterpret the power of images in every village depending on their own story.”

He often talks about the transformative power of images in his work and liberating people through the use of them. One can see the point. Replacing images of dictators with everyday people or putting the images of nameless individuals from the forgotten countryside on display is a poignant celebration of democracy.

In addition to the villages, JR led Varda on a trip to the docks in Le Havre. In the process, the photography project brought to light another inequality.

“Although we cannot declare the docks is a village, the docks is really a place where there are only men and no women,” he says. “Their wives never even went to the port before. This is crazy. When Agnes asked, they said sure we can bring our wives. We took all of the men and started building worlds of containers. The women were watching. It reflected on themselves and they said: Why are we so male-centered?”