He's a 30-year-old French street artist who is plastering the world with his work. In New York, a photo booth was put up in Times Square and thousands of portraits of New Yorkers and visitors were pasted on the floor. It was part of the artist JR’s “Inside Out” project — a worldwide, million-dollar art endeavor that allows anyone to upload a portrait onto the project’s website, have it printed out by the artist and then pasted in a public place to call attention to an idea or cause. More than 150,000 people around the world have participated. JR is the name of a photographer whose identity is semi-anonymous. He spoke with Al Jazeera America’s Tony Harris.
Tony Harris: You have asked the world — literally the world — to help you, essentially, turn the world inside out.
JR: I mean, someone I met in the streets of Haiti told me that, for him, the world inside out meant you take what's inside of you and put it out there. That's literally what it is, because I want people to take their own portraits. I will enlarge it for them, so you don't have to worry about technical stuff. But they have to paste it themself wherever it makes sense for them.
What have you learned in the process? I mean, this is a project that's what, about two years old now?
For 13 years, I've traveled around the world doing my own projects, and, you know, I realized the power of communities. I just didn't know how to translate that into other communities without me. So, them doing it without me being involved. "Inside Out" was the answer for me. It was like, "OK, I'm not going to come." People would be like, "Yeah, but wait, you're the artist, so how do you want us to do it?”
You'll have a cellphone or something — doesn't matter (which) technology. Take the portrait, send it to me. We'll print it here and we'll send it back to you — and for free, if you can't afford it. But you have to put it where it makes sense for you. Then, suddenly, they would have to get at their own community. They will have to go, "OK, we'll have this project. No one else is involved." They realize it's on their own shoulder.
It's about them. Some projects are really small. It's about a small community. And some others cover borders between countries, like in Juarez, between the U.S. and Mexico, thousands of people. Some others covered the portraits of their leader during revolution in Tunisia. Some others have pasted it in their school. I'm just sending pieces of paper, but they made it art or they made it activism or they made it political.
When you go on the project site and you take a look at the submissions, what are you seeing?
You know, when I see the portraits coming on the website, I just see faces. When I send back those faces printed on paper, depending on the context, when they're going to receive it, it's a weapon or it's a piece of art, because in some places self-expression is forbidden. And in some other (places), it's put on the top of museums.
How did it begin for you? Was it just self-expression? Was it — you don't think it was art in the beginning, did you?
No, I mean, before photographing I was doing graffiti, and that's more taken as "vandalism," you know, before it became the hype and everything. I guess it was self-expression but about self, self, you know, like, "I write my name everywhere." Then I realized the power of enabling other people to write their own name, and I decided to do that through photography and through portraits. And by doing this, I basically took what I was doing and adapted it to others and paste it and enlarge their faces in context where they've never had access to art in this form.
I'm sort of interested in who you are. I know that there's a beating heart behind the glasses, the hats. Who are you?
I'm still that same kid that was doing graffiti at that time, writing his name, and staying anonymous behind it because I didn't want to get a fine with it. But then, slowly with the years, the fine was not the problem … It's about photographing others. It's about placing others. I was like, "What would I gain of putting my face in front of that? What will I really gain?" And, you know, I still don't see what I would gain of, like, showing myself, that people recognize me in the street. So when I take off my hat and glasses, I can walk anywhere.
JR, I want to know the moment. What was the moment for you? Describe it for me when you came to the realization that, you know what, I do have something that I think could be special. What was the moment for you?
When I pasted my first photograph in the street, there was nothing, you know, impressive about it. It was a really tiny photograph. I'm not exaggerating. I framed them and then I left. And you know what they say, that the criminal always go back on the crime scene? And the artist — it works the same for the artist. When you do something in the street, you come back to see how people approach it. No one knows it's you, but you're right there.
And I was there looking, and suddenly I saw a man with a suit and a tie stopping by, looking at it with his suitcase at the photos and then walking away. I was like, "This would never happen with a graffiti of mine, and now I'm touching a kid, a young guy, and the man in a suit? Wow.”
The "Face2Face" project in Ramallah, the West Bank — I'm really interested in that. What was your goal in taking on that project? And what was the most interesting reaction to that project?
I went out there with a friend of mine, and we just started going it on both sides, because with our passports we have the chance to go and make our own opinion. That's so easy. We can go and take a coffee with a Palestinian and then with an Israeli. So, I was like, "Whoa. Why don't I take some portraits of people doing the same job on both side and always paste them together? People won't be able to recognize who is who because they're literally the same." I did it and I pasted it in those cities on both sides and on the wall, too.
In Ramallah, like you were mentioning, for me, was fascinating to see a big crowd in the street just gather around the posters. And people, you know, "Yo, kid, what are you doing? What is this?" "And who are the people, you say?" "This is two taxi driver." "OK." And then guy comes up and he says, "What do you mean two taxi — like, from where?" "Oh, one is Palestinian, and one is Israeli." Then everyone looks at each other and look at the photo again. There's a big silence. No one can recognize who is who.
That speaks volumes.
You know, and then I turn to them, I say, "So, man, who's your brother? Who's your enemy?" It was like, "Man, I can recognize my own brother, and that's him." And I say, "Sorry about it, man. It's the other one. But don't worry. I have like 10 other ones. You're going to make your chance on the next one." And people start laughing, and then humor is a big part in all this process. And suddenly they help you paste it. And they'll be like, "Oh, but are you doing this on the other side, too?" "I mean, yeah, yeah. You know, I'm going to go there." "But here, we let you do it. We are open-minded, but on the other side? They're never going to let you do it. Try to paste, you know, an enemy there for them — it's not possible."
It was amazing because it felt so easy there. People think I was risking my life, I was going through bullets, and I was actually having fun with crowds in the street. Heavy discussions for sure constantly, but, like, living discussions. I felt the power of art was at its maximum for me.
It's a conscious choice, obviously — why do you focus on faces?
Since the project after the riots (in the suburbs of Paris in 2005) that I call "28 Millimetres," I started doing faces because when you put faces, it's like a signature in the street. That's actually your own signature. If I crop to your eye, it's still your own eye, but then it could be the whole community eye. Everyone reflect themself in it, and it's the window to the soul.
So, faces kind of became, for me, a way to say, "If you're jumping in that project, it's not because I stole your image. It's because you're literally involved in it. You literally want to put your face out there, because you want to have an impact for yourself or for your community. That's none of my concern. It's your personal choice. But your face, you know, will take you deeply into the project."
If we go back to Middle East, when I was facing those fellows in Ramallah, who really take the risk at the end, when you look at it? Not me.
The one who take the risk is the guy who's on that photo, whose name is on it, and who could have a problem for having his face next to the enemy.
This interview has been condensed and edited.