Over the past two decades JR has emerged as one of our most powerful storytellers and connectors of diverse worlds and communities. Working at the intersections of photography, social engagement, and street art, he creates site-specific public interventions that bring together varied groups of individuals to counter representations in the media and engage with critical social issues around the globe. Focusing on his commitment to community, collaboration, and civic discourse, JR: Chronicles is the French artist’s largest solo museum exhibition to date, featuring some of his most iconic public projects from the past fifteen years. At its center is The Chronicles of New York City—a new collaged mural of more than a thousand New Yorkers—as well as a series of murals throughout Brooklyn.
Born in Paris in 1983 to Eastern European and Tunisian immigrant parents, JR began his career as a graffiti artist. After finding a camera in the Paris Métro in 2000, he started to document his posse of friends in the act of graffitiing and paste the photographs on building façades throughout the city. JR has said, “The city is the best gallery I could imagine!”
JR: Chronicles begins with this early work and goes on to explore JR's numerous collaborative projects around the world. Following in the long tradition of documentary photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks, he attempts to bring greater visibility to people who historically have been ignored or misrepresented in the media. Yet, unlike most documentary photographers, JR first pastes (sometimes illegally) his enlarged photographs on buildings and structures within the cities where the participants reside, presenting ordinary people on a monumental scale usually reserved for advertisements featuring models, celebrities, and politicians.
Since the pasted images almost always get washed and worn away, documentation of these installations, including the voices of the participants through video and audio recordings, is central to JR’s practice. In recent years he has created artworks, some on view here, based on his public interventions. These play an important role in both documenting and funding his epic projects and ongoing work with communities. Today, many know JR’s art through images of the final results, which he frequently shares on social media.
Showcasing photographs, dioramas, films, and documentation of the artist’s installations, this exhibition demonstrates how and why JR’s work has captured the imagination of audiences worldwide and expanded the meaning of public art through participatory projects that give visibility and agency to a broad spectrum of people.
Expo 2 Rue, 2001–4
JR began his career as a graffiti artist when he was thirteen, under the alias Face 3, making his marks on buildings and rooftops, and in subways. After finding a camera in the Paris Métro in 2000, he began to document his graffiti and other artists in action on the street. He eventually pasted photocopies of these images onto exterior walls and added painted frames, creating Expo 2 Rue (Sidewalk Galleries). JR has said, “I own the largest gallery of the world—the walls of the city!” These works demonstrate his early dedication to picturing communities and working outside of traditional art institutions in order to engage both local and broader publics.
Portrait of a Generation, 2004–6
In 2004 JR initiated his first major public project, Portrait of a Generation, which featured photographs of young people from Cité des Bosquets (known as “Les Bosquets”), a housing complex in the Parisian suburb of Montfermeil, and the neighboring one of La Forestière in Clichy-sous-Bois. JR and his friend Ladj Ly, a filmmaker and resident of Les Bosquets, worked with these communities to produce portraits and then paste the enlarged images in the surrounding neighborhood of Montfermeil and, eventually, throughout central Paris. Each pasting included the name, age, and address of the sitter.
As JR recalls: “We made our first portraits in Les Bosquets in 2004. Ladj and I took close-up images of the neighbors there. They loved playing to the cameras, making silly faces. This was before social media made it possible for people to disseminate their own images so easily, so when we posted these portraits in Paris, we were really bringing those faces to neighborhoods where they would otherwise never be seen. We also posted the photos around Les Bosquets itself.”
In 2005 riots erupted in these Parisian neighborhoods after the deaths of two teenagers, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, who were electrocuted in a power station as they hid from a stop-and-search by the police. The event sparked a three-week uprising over the treatment of the working-class immigrant residents. Some of the original pasted images became the backdrop for these riots, and ended up in the media. Following the unrest, JR returned to the neighborhoods to photograph the inhabitants again. He recalls: “At the time, journalists were coming to photograph the rioters using telephoto lenses, like voyeurs, and often had to leave empty-handed. As for me, I used 28mm portraits, with a lens that meant you had to be very close to your subjects and which deformed faces just as the media [had] deform[ed] our vision of the suburbs.” Allowing the youths to “play the caricatures of themselves” gave them agency in how they were represented in photographs and subverted biased media representations.
In France the term “suburb” (banlieue) refers to communities outside city centers, including those that experience high unemployment and crime, with a large population of ethnic minorities.
Face 2 Face, 2006–7
In 2005 JR traveled to Israel and Palestine, where he and his friend Marco were inspired to carry out a public project similar to Portrait of a Generation. The following year, during a period of fierce tension and fighting in the Gaza Strip, they began meeting with and making portraits of Palestinians and Israelis who held the same jobs: teachers, doctors, athletes, artists, and religious leaders. In contrast to portrayals in the media, which emphasized the seriousness of the conflict and the literal wall that separates the two communities, many of these portraits, like those of Portrait of a Generation, are humorous and joyful. As part of the project, JR asked participants to sign a letter declaring they were for peace and a two-state solution to the conflict.
Working with his collaborators and on-site volunteers, JR eventually pasted these large-format portraits side by side on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the border wall. Ayman Abu Alzulof, a Palestinian actor and tour guide from the West Bank town of Beit Sahour, said he agreed to be photographed because the images would be seen on both sides of the border. "It shows that both parties look like each other, as human beings,” he explained. “It's difficult to differentiate between a Palestinian face and an Israeli face. It will also show that we live here. I think a lot of people will talk about it." At the time, it was considered the largest illegal photography exhibition ever created, spanning more than eight cities, including Bethlehem, Tel Aviv, Ramallah, and Jerusalem.
Women Are Heroes, 2008–10 “With a bullet, you get one man, with a photo, you can get a hundred.”
—Lucas, a young resident of Morro da Providência who helped install Women Are Heroes
In 2008 JR initiated Women Are Heroes after learning about the deaths of three young men in the favela of Morro da Providência in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the subsequent riots ignited by the involvement of the Brazilian military. After meeting with residents for a month, the artist collaborated with them to make photographs of the eyes and faces of local women, including some related to the murdered men. Together, they pasted the blown-up images on forty buildings along the hillside of the favela, with the giant faces and eyes staring down into Rio. “Because we arrived without sponsorship or political agenda, people always received us with open arms,” JR says. “They are happy to see another approach, in which they are actors.”
Between 2008 and 2010, JR also completed Women Are Heroes installations in Cambodia, India, Kenya, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The projects by no means romanticize the stories of women from these countries. In his accompanying book and in the documentary on the project, the hardships—domestic abuse, repeated rape, and children lost to murder—are told plainly and directly in quotes and interviews. Yet, no woman is defined by the injustices and tragedies that she has experienced. Rather than trafficking in the pain of others, JR here (as in all his projects) celebrates the individuality of each participant, allowing his sitters to perform for the camera.
Inside Out, 2011–Ongoing
In 2011 JR won the TED Prize, a $100,000 award given to “leaders with creative, bold wishes to spark global change.” JR’s wish was centered on his belief that art can help change the world: “I wish for you to stand up for what you care about by participating in a global art project, and together we'll turn the world . . . INSIDE OUT.”
The prize enabled JR to launch Inside Out, a participatory public art project that was inspired by his installations in cities around the globe. He began encouraging others to use his process and providing the means to do so, expanding his collaborative practice to a fully participatory art project.
Inside Out gives individuals and groups the opportunity to use their own portraits to highlight a statement or issue within their community. Using a website platform, people can submit photographs, and JR’s studio prints and sends back posters for the participants to paste. These actions are then documented and exhibited online. JR has also taken photo booths on the road in the form of a photo truck, where people can take a portrait and immediately receive a poster to paste onto a nearby surface.
Since 2011 more than 400,000 portraits have been pasted in 141 countries worldwide, highlighting both local and global issues, including the Black Lives Matter movement in Baltimore, the plight of Afghan refugees in Belgium, and the UN-related cholera outbreak in Haiti. This installation highlights many of the Inside Out projects through videos created by the organizers and participants.
Applications for the project can be submitted at www.insideoutproject.net. (All posters are sent to participants free of charge.)
The Wrinkles of the City, 2008–15
In 2008 JR began his project The Wrinkles of the City in Cartagena, Spain. As he had done for Women Are Heroes, JR collaborated with the community to create large-scale portraits. This time he photographed the oldest inhabitants of this port, which was the site of a major rebellion during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) and the last city to surrender to General Francisco Franco. Portraits of elderly townspeople were pasted on the walls of buildings, with the faces and façades both bearing the traces of the city’s history.
Subsequently, JR traveled to Berlin, Havana, Istanbul, Shanghai, and Los Angeles in order to explore the lives of inhabitants who had witnessed some of the most significant cultural, social, and economic changes of the twentieth century. The resulting series not only reflects on change and memory, modernization and globalization, but also challenges cultural perceptions of the elderly by celebrating their aging appearance as beautiful, on a monumental scale.
The Chronicles of Clichy-Montfermeil, 2017
In 2016 JR returned to Clichy-Montfermeil (as Clichy-sous-Bois and Montfermeil are called) with the filmmaker Ladj Ly to photograph more than 750 people from the Parisian suburb in order to create a large-scale mural, inspired by the work of the Mexican painter Diego Rivera in the first half of the twentieth century. They tried to find as many of the residents who had participated in Portrait of a Generation in 2004–6 as possible. The new mural, The Chronicles of Clichy-Montfermeil, debuted in 2017 at the Palais de Tokyo, in Paris, and is now permanently installed at Les Bosquets, the housing complex in Montfermeil where JR made Portrait of a Generation. Presenting former and current residents alongside one another, the mural included portraits of firefighters, police officers, parents, students, and the mayors of Clichy-sous-Bois and Montfermeil.
At the time, JR remarked: “I’ve been going regularly to Clichy-Montfermeil for more than fifteen years, with my friend the filmmaker Ladj Ly. As soon as I imagine that I know this town by heart, it then totally metamorphoses, and it is always brimming over with life. My work is linked to architecture: an architecture that can unite just as it can enclose. This fresco forms an image of Clichy-Montfermeil made up of portraits of different generations who have seen the utopia of this neighborhood fall apart, with poverty and social tensions worsening to such an extent that, after the deaths of two teenagers, Zyed and Bouna, in 2005, it became the trigger point of the biggest riots in French history. It is a portrait of those who strive to put poetry back into cement.”
The Gun Chronicles: A Story of America, 2018
Commissioned by Time magazine for its cover on November 5, 2018, this video mural visualizes a spectrum of views on guns in the United States through collaged portraits of individuals, including gun collectors, hunters, law enforcement officials, shooting victims, emergency room teams that treat victims of mass shootings, and gun industry lobbyists. The undertaking involved three cities—Washington, D.C., Saint Louis, and Dallas—and 245 people. Participants were invited to share their individual views, describe their own experiences, and search for common ground; their accounts are accessible on the project's website.
The project was recently nominated for an Emmy Award in the Outstanding New Approaches: Current News category.
In September 2017 JR installed a monumental photograph of Kikito, a one-year-old boy from Tecate, Mexico, in a location near the child’s home along the U.S.-Mexico border. The giant toddler, seeming to peer over the fence, prompted the viewer to wonder, What does a child think about a fence he sees every day? Although the nearly seventy-foot-tall image stood in Mexico, it could best be viewed from the United States. Kikito’s mother remarked: “I hope this will help people see us differently than what they hear in the media. . . . I hope in that image they won’t only see my kid. They will see us all.”
A month later, on the last day of the scaffolding installation, JR organized a giant picnic on both sides of the fence. Kikito, his family, and hundreds of guests came from the United States and Mexico to share a meal. They gathered around the eyes of Mayra, a "Dreamer"—one of the young undocumented immigrants registered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—eating the same food, sharing the same water, and enjoying the same live music (with half the band's musicians playing on either side).
The Chronicles of New York City, 2019
Since 2017 JR has been creating participatory murals inspired by the work of the Mexican painter Diego Rivera in the first half of the twentieth century. In the summer of 2018, JR and his team spent a month roaming all five boroughs of New York City, parking their 53-foot-long trailer truck in numerous locations and taking photographs of passersby who wished to participate. Each was photographed in front of a green screen, and then the images were collaged into a New York City setting featuring architectural landmarks. More than a thousand people were photographed for the resulting mural, The Chronicles of New York City. The participants chose how they personally wanted to be represented and were asked to share their stories, which are now available on a free mobile app.