Street Artist JR Asks People Worldwide to Lend Him Their Eyes

JR, the graffiti-artist-turned-photographer-turned-global-phenomenon, talks to Fast Company about embarking on his global TED project, which encourages citizen artists to document and display the faces of their own communities.

Last fall, the French street artist JR, known for his haunting, massive posters of the faces of ordinary people, won the 2011 TED Prize. As part of the prize, JR was challenged to think of a way he could use art to change the world. At the TED conference last week, he revealed his plan: a "global art project" called Inside Out, which would transform everyday people into the JR's of their communities.

"Inside Out lets anyone paste, giving them the tools and the framework to share their pictures and what they stand for.," JR tells Fast Company.

JR has done beautiful work, traveling the globe--from the banlieus of Paris to the favelas of Brazil to the walled-in towns of Palestine--and pasting intimate, extreme-close-up portraits of the overlooked and downtrodden in prominent places. (See our slideshow of JR's work.) "I can still do my personal work and Inside Out- it can't really be compared," JR says. The idea behind Inside Out is to crowdsource, and mass produce, the JR spirit.

To do that, JR and TED approached a company called HUGE, an interactive agency with some prominent clients (it managed the Pepsi Refresh project). The goal was to globalize JR's art even further, making it "truly the world's largest art project," HUGE CEO Aaron Shapiro tells Fast Company. People from all over the world are invited to submit close-up portraits in the JR aesthetic (black-and-white face staring at the camera). They upload those photos to a website HUGE built, JR's team will create a physical poster, send it over in the mail, and then the would-be JRs of the world paste the poster in their community.

"What makes this a great project is that the tools are provided, but people add their own voices and faces," JR says. "I didn't invent anything to make this work possible--anyone can take their picture and go to a printer, but what is special is that people can be part of a movement. They can make it local and adapt the project to fit what matters to them."

The posters are 35.43"x53.15"--not exactly the massive scale associated with some of JR's most prominent work, but still large. ("I still have the work I create, which is on a huge architectural scale," JR says.) Users are asked to pitch in $20 for poster fulfillment; if they can't, there are funds available to help them. (HUGE is doing its part pro-bono.)

"We won't allow this to become commercial in any way, because it's about people sharing their images along with a story of what they care about," JR insists.

Like the Renaissance masters, then, JR now has a school all his own. And his disciples are all doing their coursework via e-learning.

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[Image: Flickr user bareknuckleyellow]

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