JR’s pseudonym demonstrates both the humour and keen conscientiousness he brings to his work. He gave himself the same nickname as the character from the television series Dallas, the perfect example of abjectness and the emblem of capitalism at its most egotistic. He did so because he wanted to take on the system on its own playing field, attacking it from the inside, like an alien that we allow to settle in without understanding it right away, until he takes power and drags us into his message. He started as a graffiti artist. By photographing his friends holding spray cans and by pasting an illegal exhibition on Paris’s walls, JR became a photographer, poster artist and activist all at the same time; he became a synthesis of his era.
In 2005 when the Clichy-sous-Bois and Montfermeil suburbs in Paris erupted into violence, dragging a number of other French suburbs in their wake, the world media amplified the revolt. JR, 22 years old, grew up in a “calm” Parisian suburb that was a mix of individual homes and high-rise housing developments.
He felt the young people were experiencing an injustice. He himself had known the fear and elation of
living close to Paris without having access to its codes and of knowing his escapades were limited to
Auber or Halles.
He went to Clichy-sous-Bois and Montfermeil and used a wide-angle lens to take portraits of the suburban youth, asking them to make a funny faces. His photos were ironic representations of the images of enraged social misfits being broadcast by the media. His photography subjects dissolved into uncontrollable laughter and his images triggered such hilarity that whoever looks at them now can only feel sympathy for the subjects.
Then comes the stroke of genius. Undoubtedly because he found it futile to display fine prints for a small group of viewers, he recalled that public walls were his natural working space. He printed his photos as giant posters, accentuating the proximity of the characters. They gave off an intense presence and the laughter was almost audible.
JR discarded the fundamentals of the artistic process; he improves the process by rejecting it, creating a system for political discourse that is more precise and universal. His methods for distributing his images became more refined; he increased the involvement of the populations he defends and organised his financial freedom and autonomy. His work is heartening because it doesn’t seek to create the work at any price; it seeks to create a social link, to bring together communities, to make people more aware.
JR explores the flexibility of photography. At a time when everyone is obsessed with printing and quality is inspected by collectors, when the label “visual artist” can add value to the image before it is even viewed, JR couldn’t care less for such conventions. He evokes the flexibility of photography and explores all of its possibilities.
Posters are his medium, the centre of his work. Since he happens to be a good photographer, which wouldn’t have been important for his work, he photographs his installations in their environment to produce images that are then sold by his fashionable gallery, which is his main source of funds. The press is not an end in itself but rather is used, along with the Internet, to echo the event.
Without knowing it, JR is part of a tradition that started with Claude Bricage and his “Photographier la ville” project (Photograph the City) from the early 1980s. Both a photographer and activist, Bricage started one of the first initiatives in the French département of Seine-Saint-Denis, which would be carried on by a number of others. In order to show the evolution of the French suburbs, courses were created so that young people could learn about their environment. The exhibition was displayed outdoors in 120 x 180 cm format in the cities involved.
Martin Parr caused scandal in London with his “Signs of the Times” series on English taste. The photos, showing the interior design of British homes and quotes from their residents, were displayed on billboards throughout London and in tube stations, without any explanation.
Guy Le Querrec created the advertising for the suburban Jazz festival “Banlieues bleues,” once again in Seine-Saint-Denis, on a 4 x 3 m poster in the Metro. The poster was blank to begin with and was updated daily with a new small photo of each day’s concert.
When I was running Magnum, I drew inspiration from this movement twice. The day after the military intervention in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, in 1989, when journalistic coverage was forbidden, we worked with Stuart Franklin to offer the famous photo of the person in a white shirt stopping the tanks to Amnesty International for a poster that was widely distributed. During the conflict in Bosnia, when the Serbians had been in control of Sarajevo for several months and the press had shockingly stopped covering the events, I proposed to Gilles Peress the idea of surrounding Paris with 3 x 8 m posters showing two of his photographs of the residents with only the phrase “Sarajevo 300,000 hostages.”
September 11th gave rise to one of the most moving initiatives, in which amateur and professional photo¬graphers brought their photos of the Twin Towers, shot when digital photography was just beginning, and tacked them up on the wall or hung them from the ceiling of a shop. The exhibit, “Here is New York,” became a temple, a space for gathering and exchange where the images were sold at low prices to support the families of the victims.
And finally, Israeli graphic designer David Tartakover obtained photographers’ permission for the reuse of their press photographs to produce unique posters denouncing the war-makers in the Israel-Palestine conflict tirelessly, peacefully and with fury. He still displays them in a window at the same café in Tel Aviv.
These projects are all very distant from the art market and the press, and represent a truly alternative form of public information. The messages are simple, but cannot be indirect. The photographs are not cropped, captioned or titled to modify their meaning, as the press tends to do tactlessly.
While developing his process and applying it to places a further away from home, JR strove to involve the populations in the installation of his projects. He promised corrugated roofs, the media for his portraits, to the inhabitants of Kenyan shantytowns so that they would watch over the installation during its short-lived existence. In the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, he gave the inhabitants canvas cloths covered in images to make their shelters more waterproof.
JR is not an event photographer. He forces us to see phenomena that we usually ignore out of habit and resignation, because their absurd violence is long-lasting; his most recent struggle to make us question the position of women in societies where they are not equal to men comes to mind. He created drastically simplified portraits with enquiring, penetrating, watchful yet solemn expressions. The barer JR makes his designs, the clearer his message becomes. He draws our attention with a powerful installation and invades us with these expressions that tug at our conscience long after we see them.
JR is to the current era of photography what Nan Goldin was in the 1980s. He doesn’t seek to be a virtuoso. In each of his projects he seeks to act as a witness for a community. Using posters and installing them in the actual landscape of the featured crisis, he invents a new tool for distribution, similar to what Goldin did with her audiovisual projections in cafés.
JR doesn’t want glory; he prefers the anonymity and the collective adventure produced by his projects. He handles humour with courage and manipulates the press, the Internet and the art market to serve his purpose, which has the great value of being purely political, even if that word scares his generation. He takes a stand and forces us to see his point of view; he gets involved.