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."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tony breaks into Ian Garrett's yacht and makes a shocking discovery
TVReview: Revelations continue to make this drama a tough watch
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
The party's over: Paul Higgins and Stella Gonet in 'Hope' at the Royal Court

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special

Broadcaster unveils Christmas schedule

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire
    10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    Festive treats: 10 best stocking fillers for foodies

    From boozy milk to wasabi, give the food-lover in your life some extra-special, unusual treats to wake up to on Christmas morning
    Phil Hughes head injury: He had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Phil Hughes had one weakness – it has come back to haunt him

    Prolific opener had world at his feet until Harmison and Flintoff bounced him
    'I have an age of attraction that starts as low as four': How do you deal with a paedophile who has never committed a crime?

    'I am a paedophile'

    Is our approach to sex offenders helping to create more victims?
    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    How bad do you have to be to lose a Home Office contract?

    Serco given Yarl’s Wood immigration contract despite ‘vast failings’
    Green Party on the march in Bristol: From a lost deposit to victory

    From a lost deposit to victory

    Green Party on the march in Bristol
    Putting the grot right into Santa's grotto

    Winter blunderlands

    Putting the grot into grotto
    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?' London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital

    'It just came to us, why not do it naked?'

    London's first nude free runner captured in breathtaking images across capital