How JR creates stories out of photographs

By Daniel Suen and Christy Hui

With his signature ‘blown-up’ portraits and his international Inside Out project, French photographer JR tells Hong Kong a story with his exhibition JR: A Survey. Pictures of exaggerated portraits from places of poverty and chaos pack a punch in serene and prosperous at Repulse Bay.

“Even if the piece of art is taken down, it’s not a defeat. It’s the process that’s important. When people get together trying to do something, more people will get involved and try to do more,” JR tells Culture Express.

JR’s artistic belief may echo the artistic boom during last year’s “umbrella movement” protests for democracy, when many anonymous artists put up art pieces as a means of voicing their wishes.

While the protest has been cleaned up and the city appears to return to a state of calm, JR believes the artworks have made their value. Same principle applies to his creations. He has great ambition for the influence of his projects, “My dream is a kid in those places would look at my work and one day become an artist.”

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JR presents his artworks. Photos: Daniel Suen

JR is famous for putting his photography in unexpected places – very often illegally. He and his team paste oversized portraits of locals on building walls and structures across the continents as they challenge the existing orders of the locations. Their work change the cityscape of deprivation momentarily with the alien concept of ‘art’. JR then records the ‘power of picture’ manifested with his photography as a creation of new stories that make an impression on the locality.

Some of these are featured in the Hong Kong show, which is presented by the new non-profit Hong Kong Contemporary Art Foundation. The show includes the display of his Inside Out on a flyover over Connaught Road Central in 2012.The Survey also shows other keystone pieces of his different projects, from the Portrait of a Generation, which started at 2004 to the ongoing Unframed.

The project The Wrinkles of the City, running since 2008, is exemplifies JR’s interest in historical context. He recorded seniors and places that witnessed important moments. His humour is well interpreted through the funny faces made on the public self-portraits and places he selected to show them. The enlarged wrinkles on the walls of Cartagena, Shanghai, Los Angeles, Havana and Berlin highlight the timelessness of old stories and create an alternative archive of people who once lived in the cities.

As a photographer, JR does not embrace the tendency to take credit as the creator of the photograph. In Inside Out, he took another step on the idea of participation by letting the community do their own work: people take their own portrait, upload it to the project website and put them on their walls after JR sends them back the print.

The equipment and photographic technique are no longer important in the process of making art, according to JR.

“What’s important it’s what you do with the image, where you paste it and what it means, not the quality of the picture.”

JR: A Survey runs at The Ocean in Repulse Bay until April 12

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