The next big thing

When a Paris graffiti artist found a camera on a train, his ambitions grew big. Now he plans to cover Tate Modern with the biggest photograph ever made. John Lichfield reports
Click to follow

JR started very small but went on to become the "biggest" photographer in the world. He plans to become even bigger. In the past three years, the young French photographic graffiti artist, or "photograffeur", has pasted – mostly uninvited – immense blow-ups of his work on buildings from France, to Israel, to Palestine, to the war zones of Liberia.

He has now been commissioned to post his work on the outside of the Tate Modern in London. JR plans to blow up a single image so large that it will occupy the full height of the 325ft tower at the Thames-side power station-turned-art-gallery.

This would be three times taller than any other blow-up that he has previously printed and pasted up. It would, almost certainly, be the largest enlargement of a photograph ever attempted. Printing such a mega-snap is no problem, he says, but pasting it to a structure as large as the Tate Modern tower could be a nightmare.

"I will need some kind of very big crane," he said. "I will have to talk to the people at the Tate Modern but we should be able to manage it somehow. When I was in Africa, people walked for miles to bring me the water to make my poster paste. Surely London can find a machine capable of helping me to post up a very big photograph."

JR, who never reveals his full name, describes the invitation from the Tate as a "consecration". He began in a small way eight years ago after finding a cheap camera which had been lost by a tourist on the Paris Metro. He had previously been a "tagger", or graffiti artist.

His photography is raw, jagged, full of movement, capturing the noise and energy of the streets that were his first inspiration and photo gallery.

JR, who comes from a middle-class Franco-Tunisian family, has never had a lesson in photography. His images now sell in Paris galleries for up to €12,000 (£9,500).

For several years, he insisted that his age was "about 25", because he suspected that he was too young to be taken seriously. JR has now exclusively revealed his real age to The Independent. "For the first time this year," he explained, "I am 25 years old".

JR's work is about much more than size. He uses surprise and humour and courage to break down boundaries between people. He takes his art on to the street and into war zones and places where art seems to have no place. He creates odd juxtapositions which force people to ask questions and to smile.

He started by creating large stencils and then industrial-size photocopies of his pictures and pasting them up in the streets of Paris. He then took photographs of street scenes which included his own fly-posted photographs or "photograffs". He posted those images in the streets as well.

Two years ago, JR took portraits of young people in the Les Bousquets estate, in the northern Paris suburbs, where the French suburban riots began in October 2005. He photographed young people in close-up, grimacing like the "extra-terrestrials that most Parisians assume that they are". Then he flyposted giant images of their faces in the streets of a city which lives in fear, and ignorance, of its poor multiracial suburbs.

In the past two years, JR has exported the idea of "grimaces for peace" across the globe. He took close-ups in Israel and Palestine of grimacing people who did the same jobs: taxi-drivers, hairdressers, chefs, security guards. He blew them up and stuck them, side by side, on buildings on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide and on the wall that separates Israel from the West Bank.

Which were the grimacing Israelis? Which were the grimacing Palestinians? Most people could not tell. JR took pictures of Israelis and Palestinians staring at his pictures. He posted those up as well.

Most famously of all, he took pictures of three joyously grimacing men: an imam, a rabbi and a priest. Those images, posted, or printed side by side, have become famous all over the world. The three grimacing men of different gods – or of the same God – have since become friends. The imam and the rabbi, Sheikh Aziz and Reb Eliyahu, recently accompanied JR to Geneva where they helped him to post up their own giant faces for an exhibition.

In his most ambitious venture, JR toured Africa last year with his camera, his billsticker's long brushes and paste and a team of helpers, including two British film-makers, Dan Lowe and Anthony Dickenson. This was the beginning of a new project, Women are Heroes, which explores the everyday courage of women threatened by war, famine or poverty.

JR took scores of photographs of African women's faces and especially African women's eyes. In Liberia, negotiating with soldiers and rebels and bandits, he pasted huge blow-ups of these faces and eyes on buildings, bridges, trucks and buses. He was recently invited to post some of the African images, blown up to an immense scale, on the streets of Brussels for International Women's Day. A film by Lowe and Dickenson, recounting JR's journey, should appear next year.

"I own the biggest art gallery in the world," JR says. "I exhibit freely in the streets of the world, catching the attention of people who are not museum visitors. My work mixes art and act. It talks about commitment, beauty, freedom, identity and limit."

JR takes art into places ruled by suspicion, poverty, violence and oppression but insists he is making an artistic statement, not a political one. "I am not an artist with a cause but an artist who causes people to think," he says.

JR's art is also an experiment in the humanising power of art itself. In Libya he met women who had been raped and whose children had been murdered by rebels, or by government troops. "They seemed destroyed, crushed, devoid of life but they agreed to be photographed because they wanted their stories to be known. As soon as the camera focused on their faces, you could see the life, the determination, the courage flood back into their eyes."

Similarly, he said, he and his team went to places where they had been strongly advised not to go. They were warned that they risked murder or kidnap. "Yes, there was sometimes trouble at first. People wanted to know who had sent us, who was paying us, whose side we were on. When they grasped that no one had sent us, that we were there to take and show photographs, for free, the mood changed. People went out of their way to help."

JR uses specialist, commercial photocopying companies to blow up and print his photographs. They emerge from the photo-copying machines in strips 80cm wide. The strips of poster paper are then pasted up on buildings – or sometimes in Africa on vehicles – using ordinary poster paste and wide brushes.

In Africa and in the Middle East, the blow-ups were small enough to be posted from ladders. In Europe, JR and his team use small mobile cranes or cherry pickers. JR's largest blow-up so far was 40 metres wide by 30 metres high for an exhibition in Berlin. If he manages to occupy the whole of the Tate Modern tower, he will have trebled his height record.

"There is no technical limit to how large you can blow up a photograph," he said. "The only limit is whether you can find some way of pasting it up on a building."

Why make his blow-ups so large? In Africa and the Middle East, he says, immense size is not necessary. The landscapes or streetscapes are so monotonous that any large photograph posted outdoors arrests the attention.

"In Europe, I am competing with a jumble of commercial images or signs on billboards or buildings. I use black and white to stand out but I also use size."

Tate Modern has commissioned JR to decorate the façade of the building for an exhibition of "street art" in May. JR already has several possibilities mocked up on his computer in his workshop in Paris. One of his ideas is to place a strip of his photographs of African women's eyes the length of the building. His favourite plan, however, is to occupy the height of the tower, or possibly three sides of the tower with blow-ups of the "three grimacing divines".

"To be invited to the Tate Modern is a consecration that I had not expected so soon," he said. "I want to attempt something very special, something that will be remembered."

An additional project that JR has in mind for London is an "animated" image of one of his African eyes, using "flick-book" techniques to give onlookers the impression that the eye is winking.

Does JR see any contradiction between his image as a spontaneous"street" photographer and the fact that he is now commissioned by celebrated art museums? Is he embarrassed that his prints sell for up to €12,000?

"No, so long as one thing supports the other. The sale of prints finances my trips, which are not cheap to organise. Museum exhibitions help to spread the message of what I do and size helps. You can't put up a 90-metre-high image without permission. All the same, my real project is on the street, whether it is in Paris, or Liberia, or, next, in Latin America and Asia."