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Portraits of a generation

Parisian artist JR believes in redistributing photo power to the masses

The French photographer JR has flypostered his enormous, blown-up portraits of ordinary people all over the walls of Parisian banlieus, Brazilian slums and contested border walls between Palestine and Israel. What began as a personal journey into some of the most poverty-stricken and conflicted territories has since become a global undertaking of sorts: when his photography was awarded the TED Prize in 2011, JR launched Inside Out, a worldwide participatory art project that places the means of production back into the hands of the locals.

Where JR once invited ordinary people to sit for his camera, he now allows them to send him their portraits, which he and his team then blows up, prints onto waterproof vinyl and sends back so that the sitter-turned-photographer can  paste their image wherever they choose. The photos – all in JR-approved monochrome, with the distinctive dotted background – have been plastered in every location possible: queer activists have left theirs outside Russian embassies, Lakota tribespeople have plastered them on teepee walls, and the images of HIV-positive orphans have graced the walls of Johannesburg townships. It's a radical means of redistributing the power of photography. Dazed spoke to JR when his first European photo booth truck hit London. 

Dazed Digital: What is the philosophy behind Inside Out?

JR: I guess the philosophy behind Inside Out is what I was doing for all those years of going into communities, interacting with the people and seing how involved they were in making the art possible. I decided to flip the concept and let them do it, and for that I needed to put some rules in place. Pretty simply, it has to be portraits: no brands, no association, nothing behind it except people. Even if they can't afford it, I'll print for them but I want them to paste it for where it makes sense to them. Sometimes we do these big gatherings, like now, which is more like a performance where people who hear about it or people who are coming through town will paste their photo and get together.   

DD: The portraits all have a very uniform, black and white aesthetic - why did you choose this portrait format?

JR: Black and white has always been a signature for me, just because it breaks from the advertising. I try to make the rules that it would be a portrait. If it's in the photo booth people can do it themselves, then I put the dots in the background because a lot of the people were sending me low quality photos from their phones. That’s fine, we can still print it, the dots became the unification of the whole project. Even if you have a not so good camera, the dots kind of make the whole project match. 

DD: Why do you have such a strong belief in the power of personal stories and portraits?

JR: Personal dignity. Even where food is still the main need, people still have dignity. It's something you have to experience to realise that the power of self esteem and dignity is huge; we are all the same, wherever we come from. Image is part of the healing process, and it also has an impact on ourselves and others. It's been amazing to observe that around the world.  

DD: What is the most touching reaction you’ve seen to the portraits?

JR: I was recently in Cuba, a year after a project I did there. I gave the book to the people in it, like I always do, when one woman came to me and said, "You have no idea how you changed my life because actually, my husband never looked up to me until that photo was huge in the city. I don’t know why it changed him, but it did, and it kind of changed my life and I’m seventy." It was pretty moving. 

DD: What were you doing when you heard you won the TED Prize in 2011, and how did it feel?

JR: When I heard about it, I did not really know what was the TED Prize. Then I looked into it and was like, "Wow that’s a pretty big deal, mainly for the fact that I’m going to be able to share a message with a lot of people. That was the first time I created my Instagram account, preparing to do a speech that will be seen by millions online and it did have a big impact on my work but I also used it as part of the process for inside out that’s how most of the people heard about it. And so it was for me a way to be like okay I’m going to share my story but at the same time I’m going to use it as a tool to start a whole new project.