JR, the man who shot the slums, wins humanitarian award

The secretive French snapper famed for his giant images of poverty tells John Lichfield how he fears the global exposure will ruin him

I have known JR for four years. It took me a little time to grasp that I was acquainted with genius. JR, a young French photographer-graffiti artist, or photograffeur, is an artistic genius for the 21st century: iconoclastic, passionate, engaged, apolitical. He is a street artist (a term he hates) who has become a global artist dedicated to changing the way that the world looks at itself. He has invented an entirely new art form, a mixture of performance art and poster advertising.

When I first met him, JR was "about 25", irrepressibly seething with ideas and beginning to make a reputation (although he never gives his full name). He was then illegally sticking up in the streets of Paris enormous, poster-size, blow-up photographs of grimacing faces from the dreaded multi-racial banlieues or suburbs. He was taking pictures of wealthy Parisians staring at his pictures "as if they were from the moon" and posting those up too.

JR has since taken his method, and his team of friends with long poster brushes and pots of glue, to Israel, Palestine, Africa, Brazil and – at present – to China (where he was arrested, in Shanghai, on Tuesday for illegal fly-posting and then released). He photographs the faces of people living in poverty, degradation or fear. He then blows up the image to super-size – like the superheroes that he insists that they are – and posts them up in their own neighbourhoods, or in richer neighbourhoods.

The intention, he says, is "artistic, not political" – to encourage poor and rich, oppressor and oppressed, to think of each other, and themselves, in different ways. Or simply to think.

Yesterday it was announced that JR was the first artist to have won the $100,000 (£63,000) TED prize, an award for humanitarian work previously given to Bill Clinton, Bono and Jamie Oliver. The prize, sponsored by leading international businessmen and entertainers, also gives its annual winner a "wish" – the chance to draw attention and funding to a humanitarian cause of their own choosing.

Winning such a prize is a consecration for JR and a headache. He was refusing to give media interviews yesterday because he regards celebrity as an obstacle, even a threat, to his work. (JR is also a very non-21st century kind of artist).

He agreed to make an exception to his interview ban for The Independent, since we have followed his work from the beginning (and once asked him to take a series of "year after" photographs in the Paris suburb where the riots of November 2005 began).

On the telephone from Shanghai, he said: "This was a complete surprise. It's not the kind of prize that you can apply for. It's left me dazed.

"At first I wasn't sure I could accept because I have always refused sponsorship of any kind. But they told me that there was no question of me having to use commercial labels on my work, or anything like that. So then I was fine with it.

"I have been giving some thought to what my 'wish' will be. [He has until the prize is presented next March.] I have come up with nothing specific yet but I would want it to be something in the spirit of what I already do.

"I go to local communities, forgotten communities or antagonistic communities, and try to energise them and bring them together and make them think, through the medium of art. I would want my 'wish' to be something like that, but on a global scale."

JR, who comes from a middle-class Franco-Tunisian family, began his photographic career 11 years ago when he found a cheap camera left by a tourist on the Paris Metro. He finances his photographic guerrilla activities all over the world by selling images in French and US galleries for up to €30,000 (£26,400) a time. He has been asked to give exhibitions in London, Brussels, Berlin, Paris and, from Saturday, in Shanghai.

The Chinese authorities imagined that JR would restrict himself to his official photographic exhibition from Saturday. They had not bargained for him "doing a JR" in China.

"This is why I am wary of celebrity," he said. "I am not the star of my work. The subjects of my photographs are the stars of my work. I want it to remain that way. If people start to think of me as a celebrity, to know what I look like, then that is going to get in the way of what I do."

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