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Interview with Artist and Photographer, JR

Aired October 5, 2012 - 05:30:00   ET



KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR (voiceover): In 2005, two teenagers of African descent were electrocuted, hiding in a power substation in a suburb of Paris, after apparently running from police.

As a result, protests erupted. As the smoke cleared, this oversized photograph of local youths emerged. Although taken before the riots, it seemed to magnify the presence of this disgruntled sector of French society. The photographer, however, was nowhere to be seen.

Even today, the artist's semi-anonymity remains intact. He creates art that is designed to raise questions. Invited or not, artist- photographer, JR, his huge black and white photographs of everyday people across urban infrastructure around the world. From the Middle East to the world's poorest slums in Kenya and Brazil.

In 2011, he joined the ranks of Bill Clinton and Bono to win the annual TED Prize of $100,000 to change the world.

JR, ARTIST-PHOTOGRAPHER: I was in my studio in Paris and the phone rang. And I heard, "Hey, JR, you won the TED Prize, 2011. You have to make a wish to save the world".

STOUT (voiceover): His latest project, "Inside Out", is his wish. Essentially flipping his artistic process - giving the subject of the photo a print of their own portrait to paste wherever they like.

This week, "Talk Asia" catches up with JR in Hong Kong to find out why the street will always be his canvas and discover if he really thinks he can change the world.


STOUT: OK, JR, welcome to "Talk Asia".

JR: Thank you.

STOUT: Now, is there any way I can get you to take off your glasses?

JR: No. Some have tried before. But, you know, it's not that big issue for me. It's more that it really does help me in my work to stay in, I would say, semi-anonymity. Because, from when I really started, it was graffiti is illegal. So you get arrested. And then, suddenly, when I started pasting other people's portraits on the street - it was like if I was writing their name. So why would I put my name forward? Why would I put my face in front? And then, I guess, I just realized it becomes easier to stay in the shadow of the work.


JR: Yes?

STOUT: What does it mean? What do the initials stand for?

JR: Yes, it's my initials. I guess, what do they stand for? They tried that at the police station, too.


JR: But maybe with an orange (ph), you know, address, it might go great or I'm not sure about that.

STOUT: You're keeping it under wraps.

JR: Yes, exactly.

STOUT: OK, now let's talk about your background. And we'll go way back. Could you tell me your ethnic background? And could you describe where you grew up?

JR: I grew up in the suburbs of Paris and I have mixture background from Tunisia, East Europe, (UNCLEAR), I guess I grew up in a melting-pot society outside Paris. So I've always lived in two different communities.

STOUT: Tell me about your early work as a teenage graffiti artist in France. What was your media? And what did you do?

JR: I guess when I started, around 14, 15 years old, I was just writing, you know, my name, "JR" on the wall everywhere. And it was more about the adventures on going on rooftop, going in tunnels, seeing the city from another angle than the people who look at it. And then leaving a little mark there.

But I was not good at doing great painting treaty like other writers. And that's why, when I found a camera, I started documenting those guys that were really good and then I could still do all those adventures, but I would actually started using another format, the photography.

STOUT: Now, you call yourself a - and pardon my terrible French -

JR: Yes.

STOUT: A "Photograffeur".

JR: I don't, really. That's not -

STOUT: No? But in those early years, yes.

JR: Yes, exactly, in those early years.

STOUT: So can you describe, you know, what does that mash-up term mean, to describe your early work?

JR: I guess that was a term I was using when I was 17, because that was the moment when I was pasting full portraits and framing them with paint. And those photos - they were really small because I didn't know how to print bigger than an A-4, which is a really small format. And basically, I would frame them with paint. And even if people scratch them, you would still see my little frame. And it's a sidewalk gallery.

And then, I guess, I turned into a photographer. And then I turn into a wallpaper guy. And then I turn into a printer. So I guess the word, "Artist", defines what I do.


JR: Because a year I'm pasting up photos of people. Another time, I'm taking photos. Now, you know, I'm observing and studying (UNCLEAR) - a project where I'm not even involved except creatively. I like that, as an artist, you can have all those different characters.

STOUT: Yes. And it sounds like you don't want to be labeled - micro- labeled - as this type of artist or this type of artist. Just a general artist. You've also been compared to the British street-artist Banksy. What do you make of that comparison? Is it a comparison that you like?

JR: Yes. I mean, of course, you know, Banksy has done great work in the streets and I guess I like when artists are doing - how do you say? Like, when it provokes in the streets. I like when there's interactions. When it's there to push with derision and humor. And Banksy have a lot of that.

STOUT: 2005, "Portraits of a Generation", you were really holding a mirror to society. French society in the wake of the Paris riots. Tell me about that.

JR: You know, I guess that was really a moment where I decided really to be an artist, in a way. Because 2004, I took the photos and paste them in the suburbs, but it didn't have that much impact. But I was really happy that portrait (ph). It was the first time I would enlarge them that big.

But a year later, and then I could never plan, the riot started in front of my photos. Because the two kids died in that neighborhood. So the first car that burned started in front of the photo of the guy holding his camera like a weapon. And suddenly, my work was all around the media. And the people were like, "Hey, who did this? How does he (UNCLEAR) when no one can enter this neighborhood? Let's try and connect with this guy".

When they contact me by email. Lots of media wanted to have photo from me. And I was like, wait, no one have ever asked me - a real job - you know, photography - I was just doing this, you know, for fun. And now, I have a big decision to make. Do I want to do that? Or do I want to continue on the other path? That's when I say, "No, I want to continue to do image. That I'll do this or I'll paint the way and where I want".


STOUT(voiceover): Coming up, JR tells us about how the women he met in the slums of Kibera, in Kenya, changed his artistic course.

JR: And I was like, "Whoa, OK".




JR (onscreen translation): For an Israeli, a Palestinian is a terrorist that commits suicide attacks on a marketplace, killing women and children.

For a Palestinian, an Israeli is an occupation soldier who humiliates him at the checkpoint and shoots civilians and ambulances.

The reality is infinitely more complex.

Face 2 Face - the project.

The idea is to post their portraits face to face in huge formats, in unavoidable places on the Israeli and Palestinian sides.


STOUT: OK, let's talk next about 2007. And that's when you take your work outside of Europe and to the Separation Barrier in Israel. And you put this huge triptych photograph on the wall. Describe what you posted.

JR: When I heard about the Middle East, of course, like everyone, through the media. And I was in the suburbs and would keep discussing and having arguments there. And I was like, "Hey guys, does any of us know any Israeli or Palestinian?" "No". So I was like, you know, I want to go and see by myself. That's why I went with my friend Marco (ph). And when we went there, we actually looked at everything and realized, hey, the taxi driver we meet on one side, we kind of met the same on the other side.

So, I took portraits of Israeli and Palestinian doing the same job. And then paste them on the wall. And also, in eight Israeli and Palestinian cities. And the image you would see would be, you know, so of course, there's this famous image of the Rabbi, the Priest, and the Imam.

STOUT: That's right. That's right. It's very humorous. They're making these funny faces.

JR: Yes. And then you would have two teachers, two taxi drivers, two sculptors. So people would come in the streets and be like, "Hey, what are you doing? What are those portraits?" And we would be "Oh, this is an art project". You know, and they say, "Oh, OK, OK. But who are those people?" And I would say, "Oh, this is actually two taxi driver". "What do you mean, two taxi driver?" "Yes, one is Israeli, one is Palestinian".

The people would be like, really shocked, because they knew that suddenly the enemy was in one of those portraits. So, I would say, "Can you recognize who is the Israeli and who is the Palestinian?" And the people would be, "Of course, I can recognize my own brother". And they would always get wrong. Always pick the wrong one and start laughing and try on the other one.

STOUT: And did you achieve what you were out to achieve? To get people closer together and to create almost a humorous moment. Because some of the images are quite funny.

JR: Yes. I mean, you know, at that time, I was like, OK. Just that moment that we just lived in the street with those people - maybe that's - because that's the goal. Because you don't have a precise goal of what you want to achieve. That's the beauty of art. You try something and sometimes the journey to that goal is the art. Even if you never reach the goal.

But then what happened was crazy. That the image start going through the world and it starting showing another image of the Middle East. And then, traveling to Israel and Palestine started to change, also, to the tourism in Palestine, where there was no tourism proper before. So people started using the projects to change visions and perceptions of the place so that I did put feelings to show, yes, look, that's how people received it. And I never thought that, at 24 or 25, I could change the image of a place that is such in the center of the media. Even if it was for a tiny bit.

STOUT: Now, the following year, you go to Kibera. The slums of Kibera in Kenya for your "Women Are Heroes" project. Tell me about that.

JR: So, in the Middle East, that's the first time I actually traveled far. And I realized the reactions of the people in the street. I had so many interesting talk. So I was like, "Whoa", you know, maybe they don't have that much (UNCLEAR) here, so let me go further. In places where there's really no (UNCLEAR). How do people interact in the street? Is Kibera going to be a place where people going to tell me, "No thank you, we don't want art here, we have other concerns". I wanted to hear it from them. Because that's what I hear from here.

When I went there, people were like, "You kidding me? We want to show the world our face. We want to show we're here and we're not the way they think". And I was like, "Whoa, OK". And so, that's how I started "Women Are Heroes" there.



STOUT: You've also taken your work to the favelas of Brazil and Rio de Janeiro. And what I find interesting is again, you focus on women. Why the focus on women?

JR: Because I realize the "Women Are Heroes" project couldn't be only in Africa. Where I did it also in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Sudan. So I was like, "It will be interesting to see the same project - the same technique in different context like Brazil or Cambodia or India". And that's how I continue the journey. I realized that it needed a bit more than just one country. And same thing - women would still be the pillars of the society.

STOUT: I just find it so fascinating that, in your early years, you were working as a street artist, a graffiti artist, who would work without permission, and now you have these communities all over the world saying, "Please come. And this is what we want you to do in our community".

JR: Yes.

STOUT: And you're working together. So much so that, in 2009, the mayor of Ile Saint-Louis, in Paris, asked you, "Come and do something to my part of Paris". So what did you do?

JR: You know, in the heart of Paris, what was interesting is that that was an exhibition of the project I have done. So, "Women Are Heroes" had been finished at that time and was already displayed on all those location around the world. But most of the people didn't understand what was there. They just saw a couple images. So I was like, OK, if I exhibit them all in the center of Paris and then do a show - there was also an indoor show at the museum - people would be able to see who are the stories behind those portraits. It's not only images. Look who are those people behind. Look in which context they live in. What message they've been wanting to share to the world.

STOUT: It is interesting - getting people involved and having them remind each other of our shared humanity.

JR: Yes. And you have no boundaries.


STOUT: All right, JR, this is your exhibition space here in Hong Kong. And you've brought your ongoing work, "Inside Out" to the territory - in fact, it's right outside this window. Tell me about it.




STOUT: All right, JR, this is your exhibition space here in Hong Kong. And you've brought your ongoing work, "Inside Out" to the territory - in fact, it's right outside this window. Tell me about it.

JR: This is actually the first big "Inside Out" here. I've almost discovered it as I arrive because the people have already done their portraits. I've just helped with the gallery finding the location so that it would be the first "Inside Out" here. And also, if you look, people are looking up to the building.

STOUT: Yes, yes, it's very clever.

JR: And this is kind of the idea here in Hong Kong, that each "Inside Out" have a particularity. This would be the one of Hong Kong. And people could do their portraits here, also. The same way those people have done it.

STOUT: Well, let's do it.

JR: Yes.

So basically, the same way those people took it, I changed the photo booth so you have to stand up and not to sit.

STOUT: And here it is.

JR: Please get in. You see the mark for your feet.

STOUT: Oh, how fun. OK. So stand right here?

JR: Yes, exactly. And then, as soon as you touch the screen, then you have six seconds to look up in the camera and it will flash.

STOUT: Right there. OK, here we go.

JR: Wow.

STOUT: This is such a great thing.

JR: And this is as fast as that. So, you see - imagine you have an idea. People come here, get their portraits, they do it right away. That's the chance of having your photo booth in the same studio where you are.

STOUT: So, you are promoting graffiti in -

JR: Not really, because I've had people decide if they want to put it in their bedroom, if they want to place it in the city.

STOUT: All right. OK, so this is my homework assignment - I have to find a place in Hong Kong where I have to post this.

JR: Exactly.

STOUT: That's going to be tough. Yes, maybe somewhere in the CNN Newsroom. I'll figure out a place.

JR: That's your choice.

STOUT: You're fantastic.

JR: No, your choice.

STOUT: Thank you, I'm going to have my daughter color it.

JR: Yes?

STOUT: And I'm going to have her chose where she wants to post it.

JR: That's a good way to start involving people instead of waiting.

STOUT: Yes, yes. How many people have participated in -

JR: Right now, it's more than 115 thousand and one, maybe, with you -


JR: -- participated. And maybe more.

STOUT: From Tunisia to Thailand, all over the world.

JR: All over the world.


STOUT: You were awarded the TED Prize in 2011 - a $100,000 prize to change the world. Other people who have won this prize include Bill Clinton, Bono. What was your reaction when you heard the news that you won the prize?

JR: I guess, when I got it, I was really proud. Because it's not just a simple prize. It's a prize where you have to make a wish - where you have to do something. It's like a challenge. That's the way I saw it.

STOUT: So, how do you plan to change the world with your prize?

JR: So, you know, when they gave it to me, I was happy the first day and then concerned the next one. What I'm going to do with that prize? And then I was like, OK, look, for 12 years I've been going around the world pasting people's photos. Why don't I switch my concept? Why don't I stop what I'm doing? And I say all right, now you take the photo, you send it to me, and I'll print it for you. Then, when you receive it, because I'm going to send it to you, even for free wherever you are in the world in huge format. Then, you paste it if it makes sense for you. Wherever it makes sense for you.

STOUT: You've inverted the process. And you've called it "Inside Out".

JR: Exactly. And you know what? I did the speech on the second of March. I think a couple days later in Tunisia, there was, you know, a little bit at the revolution - people were replacing all the portraits of Ben Ali by their own photos. And that's the moment I say, "Whoa, this is happening". And then started spreading so rushed out to other country. More than 115,000 portraits that have been printed. And it's even spreading now to Hong Kong.

STOUT: Your work became part of the Arab Spring. Did that surprise you?

JR: To be honest, when I launched the project, I was like, "OK, who is going to do those steps?" Because it's easier to say, "Oh, this is a cool project or to say "I like it" on Facebook". It's something else to go through the process. Take a portrait, send it, wait for it to come back, and then go in the street under your own risk, with your own face, and paste it. This is so much - yes, so much more dedication, in a way. And I was surprised how much people actually did it.

STOUT: do you consider your work political?

JR: You know, the word "political" is pretty interesting. Of course my work is political just because of the fact that I'm using the streets. But as an artist, I don't have a political statement behind it. I don't write political ideas. I don't say you should, you know, vote left or right or put this wall higher or smaller. For me, an artist should be about rising questions, not giving answers. So that's the limit I keep with political.

STOUT: Through your work, it's quite evident that you are across current events. And you know what's going on at geopolitical hotspots all around the world. What informs your work? Do you read newspapers? Do you watch current events on TV?

JR: You know, when I was doing 28 mm project, yes, I was watching the media and then react to it. The riots just happened next door. You know, that was easy. The Middle East - we hear about it every day. The (UNCLEAR), I was specific events that I've heard. I was not like crazy reading everything. And what's interesting now with "Inside Out" is actually - it's like a thermometer of society.

When I receive photos from Russia, it's like it reveals a crack in society. And what's funny is a couple weeks later, there's a protest of 200,000 people. And I was like, hey, did I receive that couple thousand portraits a couple of weeks ago. Sometimes it's at the same time than the media high lines and sometimes is before, because people feel a need of expressing themselves.

STOUT: Who is funding or how are you funding your work?

JR: Basically, since the beginning I'm financing it through the sales of my artwork, basically. And I only produce a couple as year. And so the sales of that are reinvested as I want in projects, basically.

STOUT: Do you ever fear, though, since so much of your work has to do with the social response on the ground, that when your work is in the gallery or being sold through an auction house, that it loses some of its meaning?

JR: No, I don't think so. For me, that's actually where the key is - is the inside and the outside. And this is a small piece of the big piece. And that's really important for me. Because in the gallery, I can do the boost when I give the portraits to the people, which I couldn't easily do in the street. I can present some works and videos to go behind the layers of the project, which is also really important for me, because sometimes people see the image in the street, "Oh, that was cool. That was great". They don't get what's behind.

STOUT: So, what you see in a museum of gallery is an introduction. Your main show is out in the street?

JR: Yes.

STOUT: Whether it's in Kibera or in a favela in Brazil

JR: Exactly. I think the project are the streets and then the continuity of it is in the gallery. And so, here I can explore the texture - I can explore the different format. I can involve people. So here, in this gallery, people would come take their portrait, have a print, leave, and be like, "Oh, I didn't realize that, now I'm responsible of my own photo and I can decide where I'm going to paste it". So, here starts something, too.

STOUT: You're on social media, you're in galleries, you're in auction houses, but will the street always be your favorite canvas?

JR: That's a good question. Because, until now, it is. But what I love to think - and that should be a key for an artist - is that you don't know what's tomorrow made of. It's that it should be always made out of risk, of changes, of stuff you would try to do. Never tried. And so, I love not answering to that question, "What's next?" It used to scare me, before. Like, "What's next? You know, I should find the next project". And now it's like, "Yes, actually, what's next? I don't know".

Like last year, you would ask me what's going to be your next project? Before I started I had no idea that I would start this project. And I'm completely in to it. But then I might, boom, switch to another and keep that one running and then create a new idea. I hope I will surprise myself the same way people surprise me every day when I see their posters around.

STOUT: Definitely. JR, you have incredible ideas and incredible energy. It's been such a delight talking with you.

JR: Thank you.

STOUT: Thank you so much.

JR: Thank you, good night.

STOUT: This was great.