LE HAVRE, France — JR is many things: a guerrilla street artist, a photographer, an urban activist, an inspiration. What started out as a desire to leave a mark in his community evolved into a movement to awaken and empower the world.
The French native rolls out colossal black and white photographic posters of people and social injustice on public spaces. These startling images of expressive faces and gestures find a stage on favela walls, church walls, the floor of a pool, rooftops, the side of a train, public stairs and other strange albeit attention-demanding places.
JR captures the intensity of the human spirit and exhibits his images at what he believes to be the largest art gallery of the world: the streets. JR intends to shock the public and challenge popular media’s stereotypical portrayal of class and society. JR’s projects include 28 millimetres, Portraits of a Generation, Face2Face, Women are Heroes, Wrinkles in the City and the Inside Out Project, a global participatory art project.
Inside Out earned JR the 2011 TED prize.
However, Women are Heroes is a particularly provocative project. Started in 2008, Women are Heroes is JR’s journey to war zones and impoverished environments to celebrate the dignity of women. What’s more, women have a vital role in society and JR reminds everyone of this.
JR’s projects by no means romanticize the stories of these women. In the book and in the documentary, the tragedies—domestic abuse, repeated rape and children lost to murder—are told plainly and directly accompanying each photo. From the streets, to books, to a documentary, Women are Heroes tell the stories of females from Sudan, Cambodia, Brazil, Sierra Leone, India, Liberia and Kenya.
JR honors women devastated by crime, war, rape and many other counts of social and political injustice. Yet, no woman is defined by the hardships and injustice she has gone through or will continue to go through. These women are not simply victims but they are strong, they are beautiful, they are heroes and they are human.
That is what JR is doing. He is uncovering humanity.
The documentary also pans over men on the sidelines watching volunteer artists work on the project. There are scenes of children reacting to the explosive posters stretched across a city wall. This is how JR’s message gathers momentum.
Critics note that JR’s photos take on a life of their own via the reactions they elicit. People begin to notice and they begin to ask questions. Outside of books and documentaries, these posters stand on their own in the cityscape. The images have their own emotional power and tell their own story having no need for a caption. Outside of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, homes in the favela Morro de Providencia have large posters of women’s photographed eyes on the outside walls. From afar, the hill looks over the community as an arrangement of stunning eyes.
A woman who escaped a life in a dump site in Phnom Penh, Cambodia allowed JR to post an image of her eyes on the side of a rubbish truck. Her gaze now overlooks a past life.
Aside from paper posters, JR also experiments with other techniques to display his photos. He may display a video from atop a landmark. Or, he may etch outlines of an image onto the face of a building and the image takes form as the stencil collects dust over time. The point is to embed these haunting stories of survivors into the hearts of the public.
Themes of identity and freedom transcend JR’s pieces. He carries the stories of the women he and his team met around the world, and lets the stories seep into the consciousness of the public audience.
In early July of 2014, JR concluded Women are Heroes by using the 150 containers on a 363-meter long container ship as a mosaic to create the image of a pair of female eyes. This was a symbolic farewell gesture to the project. As the ship departed from Port of Le Havre in France, the shrinking pair of eyes as the ship sailed away to sea would symbolize the unfathomable magnitude of the challenges and injustice these impoverished women still have to face.
JR ends the project on an ambiguous but hopeful note. Even though he does not know who will see the mosaic or what their reaction would be, JR knows that the ship is delivering the materials in the containers to a destination in order to help build and improve life for those people.
The final art piece of the project implies that the journey to social justice and female empowerment has only just begun. There is still much to look forward to and therefore, there is still much left to do.
– Carmen Tu
Sources: Brain Pickings, Complex, JR, The Guardian
Photo: Arrested Motion