French artist JR didn't wait for an invitation from exclusive curators to showcase his larger than life portraits. Instead, he chose the world's streets as his gallery, and after pasting them up from Paris to Palestine, he has now made his way to New York.
On Saturday April 20th, in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, hundreds of people showed up and pasted their portraits on a 100 yard stretch of aluminum fence on Pioneer, Conover and King Streets. The Inside Out truck has stopped in all five boroughs to highlight the community spirit and cooperation New Yorkers showed during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The project is culminating with the project papering Times Square with faces.
"What I've learned about people basically is that when you give such a tool it recreates the links for community," JR said, standing in front of the fence of portraits in Red Hook. "It brings that interaction to people."
Red Hook was a section of Brooklyn at the East River's edge that was particularly devastated after Hurricane Sandy. People were stranded for days without power or heat. The community set up emergency shelters for those who had been displaced and food distribution sites. Centers like the Red Hook Initiative organized groups of volunteers who went door to door with food, blankets and water for residents who had been trapped in their homes. People from all over New York traveled to Red Hook, the Rockaways, Staten Island, Coney Island and anywhere help was needed to lend a hand, and most importantly, remind each other that the human race is indeed a family.
Everyone JR encountered became a potential audience or subject for his lens. His greatest inspiration derived from community engagement and interaction with his work. As he visited the five boroughs this week, social media was already buzzing when thousands of people rushed to participate in his latest piece, The Inside Out Project NYC. From now until May 10th, JR and his team are inviting New Yorkers and visitors to meet up at Times Square to add their faces to his latest work.
As a teenager JR found his first camera on a Paris subway and began shooting street art all over Europe, intrigued by this new medium and its ability to communicate "messages via the walls".
In a 2006 project called Portrait of A Generation, JR photographed dramatic close-ups of his friends, deemed by many as "thugs" from the outer suburbs of Paris, and illegally posted them on walls and facades in wealthy neighborhoods. Their enlarged faces were distorted and often ferocious.
With his next project Face 2 Face, JR posted huge portraits of Israelis and Palestinians, side by side, in eight Palestinian and Israeli cities, and on both sides of the separation wall. For Women Are Heroes, JR traveled to some of the most dangerous and impoverished parts of the world to celebrate women whom he found to be the pillars of their communities, but also the "primary victims of war, crime, rape and political or religious fanaticism." He encouraged men in Kenya, Liberia and Sierra Leone to photograph and celebrate the women in their lives. In Brazil he visited one of the most violent favelas and invited members of the community affected by violence to participate in his project. While exhibiting his subjects on a grand scale he also engaged them to participate and work together as a community on the street installations.
After receiving the Ted Prize for his work in 2011, JR was inspired to create The Inside Out Project, an international participatory art exhibit that allows people worldwide to have their picture taken and pasted up on city walls, windows, fences, even spread out over a stretch of beach, all designed to focus on an idea, an action or a community.
Now traveling with a mobile photo booth built into a truck, JR and his team set up at various locations and, using word of mouth and social media, invite the public to participate by having their large portraits taken, printed out on the spot, and then posting them up on selected outdoor sites.
The Inside Out project aims to celebrate community and camaraderie. The artist and many of the Red Hook participants say they were there to encourage people to acknowledge and engage each other, to remind New Yorkers just how intriguing their neighbors can be, and how the potential for connectivity is always there - if you're open to it. In a time when the worst of characters are drawing far too much national attention, a traveling photo booth designed to delight and inspire is a remarkable idea.
Frankie Fathers, a documentarian visiting NY from London, posed for a poster on Tuesday. She confessed "I wanted to take part in the photographs because I like JR's work. What was really great was talking to other people in the cue as you're waiting to be photographed and I already met quite a few New Yorkers who were lovely and I can't wait to see what my photo looks like on the pavement."
There is still time to head over to Times Square if you'd like your portrait included.