Street Art with a Statement

Stumbling onto street art is one of my favorite parts about wandering Paris. This week, a French street artist known only as “JR” won the $100,000 TED prize for his large-format portraits of every day people, often in some of the world’s most depressed areas.

His work first came to light when he took photos of people in the banlieues. (Banlieues, the ‘suburbs,’ are nothing like the American conception of prim residential areas, but often home to poor communities). He posted these photos in Paris’ most bourgeois neighborhoods.

JR - Art on Manette Street (Foyles)

In the video, he says that he doesn’t set out to change the world. And yet, his portraits have an impact, bringing people face to face – literally – with whom they might otherwise try to ignore.

JR’s work mixes art with activism. I think a lot about the intersection of art and activism. My two biggest drivers have always been to be of service somehow and to write. I feel I’ve never quite been able to merge the two as I’d like. I have either worked for nonprofits, volunteered – or set my mind to spinning tales.

The two could go together, of course. There are plenty of writers who have done a beautiful job of telling stories that matter. I’ve always struggled with this, though. I feel like my slice-of-life stories get bogged down anytime I try to bring in a deeper social awareness. They become overbearing, inauthentic somehow.

And yet, maybe I should just keep trying to tell my stories, however small they might seem. Maybe by being true to the people I write about – even if they are just characters in my head – something interesting might happen. They become real.

JR says he takes pictures of “anonymous” people.

Really no one is anonymous once you know them. We all have names.

“The real heroes are not where you think they are,” he says.

I’m glad France is in the news for something more than strikes this week.


-The TED prize.

JR’s website.

Do you have other examples of work mixing art and activism? Inspire us!

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8 Responses to “Street Art with a Statement”

  1. 1 Tanya October 22, 2010 at 3:28 pm

    And that’s just it. Being true to who you are and telling your story is what matters. The goal isn’t about setting the world on fire. Rather, it’s the few who are touched, moved, inspired by your story that reveals the good in what you’ve created.

    I don’t think any artists starts with the goal of changing the world. They have a story to tell, something they feel may resonate with a few…only to have the many rejoice, celebrate, and ACT!!!

    So, keep going no matter how “small” you think your story is!


    • 2 paris (im)perfect October 22, 2010 at 4:16 pm

      You’re a wise woman, Tanya. I completely agree. It would be paralyzing – at least it is for me – to sit down and think “this is going to change the world” while creating. Staying true to the story or work is vital. And that’s what opens to the possibility that it *might* touch someone – even if in just a “small” way 🙂


  2. 3 Paris Karin (an alien parisienne) October 22, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    I just read this on the TED site: “JR’s career as a photographer began when he found a camera in the Paris subway.”

    This is the kind of thing I like to think about when I have something lost or stolen — maybe it gets into the hands of someone who is really going to do something with it and needs it more than me. 🙂

    Thanks for highlighting this. I really liked how you put this: “his portraits have an impact, bringing people face to face – literally – with whom they might otherwise try to ignore.”

    I’m reading this after going on that tour with Tom and Monique of Entrée to Black Paris. After doing that and now reading about this, and how JR is trying to highlight those who are often ignored, I’m excited. I’m excited about being in Paris where this kind of activism is starting to pick up a little bit. It makes me feel like I am living somewhere vibrant and evolving, not in a place that just cares about pastries, skinny jeans, and where all the cool hangouts are. Yay!

    I like what Tanya has to say about the intersection of art and activism up there. Yup. It’s how I feel things should go, too. You are a unique person with a unique voice, and the fact that you *care* about activism is going to naturally flow into your work if you are true to yourself and true to your own voice. So just keep on writing, chick! 😉 I know I will be here waiting to buy that first book. Especially if you are willing to sign it!

    Now shoo! Off with you! You’d better get back working! 😀 Thanks for taking a time out to post this, though. It’s appreciated!


    • 4 paris (im)perfect October 22, 2010 at 5:10 pm

      Thanks, Karin. That really jumped out at me, too – that he started as a photographer because he found a camera! I think that’s so awesome!

      How was the tour, by the way? I’d really like to go on that if I have another opportunity. But yes, replying to this comment is the last Internet-type activity I’m doing for the day….was just about to go back to my story 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by!


  3. 5 Linda October 23, 2010 at 1:40 am

    I think public art is always a dicey proposition. For most of history, ‘art’ depended on individual patrons with their individual tastes. Most of what we think of as historical art was created under the patronage of either the secular or religious nobility. Now that it’s governments with the deep pockets, who, in fact, choose which art is worthy of a public stage? And whether it opens minds or oppresses spirits?

    There used to be a looming, rusting metal sculpture outside the federal office building where I worked that dwarfed everyone and made most people feel even more depressed than the green metal desk boredom of the place usually did. We all breathed a sigh of relief when it was taken down and trees planted in its place.

    And even when governments don’t get in the act, where’s the line between guerilla art and graffiti?

    It seems like that old Guns and Butter balancing act I learned about in Economics 101: when there are limited funds available, do I want to spend them on food, education and health? Or on the art that might raise awareness for those issues? Much as I applaud JR for wanting to bring difficult issues public scrutiny, I could not help but think of the man hours spent putting the exhibition up and then taking it down. When I watched the video on his web site, I was left feeling saddened watching how the murals tattered into eyesores that had to be powerwashed down the sewers. (does bringing one social problem to light justify creating another? In this case, an ecological one.)

    Hey, I don’t pretend to have the answers. But I had to agree with the old codger who said that while he enjoyed the exhibition, he was glad to have his old stones back after the murals disappeared.


    • 6 paris (im)perfect October 23, 2010 at 2:16 am

      Hi, Linda. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment. You’ve brought up a lot of great points – and ones I think about a lot, too. The Economics 101 point as you call it is definitely the reason I said I constantly went back and forth between my creative endeavours and trying to work directly on real-world issues. Given our short time on the planet, does it make more sense to raise awareness through art or address the roots of the problem head on?

      I can understand your sadness at watching the decaying murals. Honestly I can say that this wasn’t the most uplifting example I’ve seen, either, but I was glad to be thinking about the idea of art & activism again. (The ecological issue is a big one, though. Thank you for raising that. I, too, find that problematic).

      I guess my feeling is that there usually must be a multi-faceted response to issues – and that people usually do better work when they are using their talents and passions. So yes, perhaps large-scale photography projects aren’t the most effective use of time and resources (though how do we measure that?) if you look at it in one light. But I would hazard a guess that JR is best at doing this kind of work. If we stuck him in an office to make policy decisions, or sent him to run mediation workshops in the Middle East, he might not be well-suited to do either of those. So I think it’s a combination of finding in what way we are uniquely able to become engaged, while thinking about the larger, ultimate goal. I don’t think there can be just one right way to be involved in solving the world’s biggest problems.


  4. 7 Paris Paul P October 23, 2010 at 10:36 am

    I’m thinking about your comment that JR mixes art with activism… I’m not usually a big fan of this kind of art, as I find it too temporal. Still, looking at JR’s work, I get the impression it transcends this notion… Thanks for pointing him out to us!


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paris (im)perfect?

Sion Dayson is paris (im)perfect. Writer, dreamer, I moved to France on – no exaggerating – a romantic whim. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong (and very right!) with such a (non)plan. These are the (im)perfect stories that result.

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