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