DANS LA RUE: Paris Urban Youth Culture
The 2011 TED prize for $100,000 has just been awarded to anonymous.  TED has not revealed the award recipient's name, only a pair of letters--JR.  They may be initials, they may be shorthand for "Junior," or they might mean something else completely different ("Jubilant Rhinos!").  One thing the letters do stand for, though, is thought-provoking street art.

JR is a Paris-bred street artist, or as he prefers, photograffeur, a play on the words photographer and graffeur, the French word for graffiti artist.  As his origin story goes, he started out writing graffiti until he happened upon a camera on the Paris Metro.  He began photographing the youth of the banlieues and wheat-pasted their larger-than-life-size images all over the suburbs.  Illegally, of course.

Then he went global.  In the past decade, he's postered urban slums all over the world with massive images of their local inhabitants.  From favelas in Rio to rooftops in Kenya, he has gotten up.  His goal: to draw attention to the humanity of everyday people in places that are far too often overlooked, impoverished, and plagued by conflict.  As he says, "It's about breaking down barriers" through the image of the human face.  "Everything is about eye contact."

In 2006, returning to his native Paris one year after the country erupted in youth riots, JR snapped photos of the suburban youth from Montfermeil, Clichy-sous-Bois, and others.  This time, instead of posting the young, brown faces in their own neighborhoods, he took their visages straight to the center of bourgeois Paris.  The city ultimately embraced the work, "Portraits of a Generation,"  and in fact wrapped it's own city hall with these images, most likely in hopes of diffusing tensions and promoting tolerance.
Shrouded in anonymity and myth, he maintains a Banksy-like persona of mystery, intelligence, and spectacle.  But unlike the sardonic Brit, JR takes up social consciousness as his explicit agenda.  He replaces humor with a sincerity to depict the lives of his subjects.  And in fact, the local people he photographs also help him wallpaper their neighborhoods.  Community engagement leads to community empowerment.

TED lauds his work as "pervasive art" that engenders two important things: 

"The images are transported to London, New York, Berlin or Amsterdam where new people interpret them in the light of their own personal experience. And ongoing art and craft workshops in the originating community continue the work of celebrating everyone who lives there."  [bold emphasis added by me]

The TED prize committee hopes that JR's work could catalyze the entire TED community to support a philanthropic art project. 

Now with a hundred grand in hand, what will the photograffeur do next?  Previous TED awardees, such as Bill Clinton, Bono, and writer Dave Eggers, have started various awareness campaigns.  The most recent awardee, The Naked Chef Jamie Oliver has used the money to promote healthier eating habits in North America and the UK.  Knowing JR who keeps the local community in mind, he will probably keep doing his thing but just go bigger.  Who knows?  Maybe this time next year satellite pictures of North Korea will have gigantic photographs of youthful eyes staring up at us.  

Here's a great video of his recent work displayed along the Seine in Paris.

10/22/2010 12:30pm

Whoa this dude is awesome! How did he fund his work prior to getting this TED-prize?

10/22/2010 2:52pm

Good question. Like a lot of famous street artists these days, JR sells! He sold a piece recently for $35k! Street cred = gallery dollars.


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    Brian is a writer, dancer, activist, and general hip hop head from New York City. He is currently working towards his Master's in Global Communications in Paris.  


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