JR takes his 'blow-up slums' to the big screen

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The Independent Online

"JR" is, depending on your viewpoint, a genius or a blasted nuisance.

He is either one of the most original and exciting artists in the world, or a self-promoting charlatan. I reached my own conclusion a couple of years ago. The young, French photographer-graffiti artist, and now film-maker, is a genius.

He is a genius for the energy, courage, imagination and organisation with which he has taken one small "big" idea and conquered the world. JR blows up photographs of the faces of suffering or ordinary people until they are as large as advertising posters and then fly-posts them in surprising places from Paris to Shanghai, from the slums of Brazil to the Israeli-Palestinian border.

His film, Women are Heroes, which was released in France this week and will be shown at Cannes in May, is a record of JR's "blow-up" invasions of slums in Brazil, Cambodia, India and Kenya over the past three years.

Le Monde, in its review this week, took a sneering and dismissive view of JR. The most respected French newspaper slammed his film as a piece of worthless "auto-celebration". Almost every other French reviewer was bowled over by the film's vitality, originality, humanity and beauty.

Le Monde's dismissive comments are not entirely surprising. JR, a 27-year-old Parisian of Franco-Tunisian origin, who never gives his full name, has often won more recognition abroad than in his native France. Last October he became the first artist to win the $100,000 TED prize, an award for "humanitarian work" previously given to Bill Clinton, Bono and Jamie Oliver.

Shot with the help of two British film-makers, Dan Lowe and Anthony Dickenson, Women Are Heroes is an attempt to bring his work to a larger audience. "People say I'm a photographer, but I am not a photographer," he told The Independent yesterday. "The pasting up the photographs is what counts. That's where my art is – in the events created by the display of the giant images. We live in a world dominated by images, which often reinforce prejudices or clichés. Mine invite people, both the people in the photographs and other people, to look at the world in a different way."

There are many startling moments in the film. Perhaps, the most extraordinary sequence comes near to the end, when a train rolls along an embankment near a decrepit shanty-town in Kenya. Immense blow-ups of the lower parts of the faces of three local slum-dwellers have been posted along the embankment. JR and his team have plastered the train, from end to end, with the upper faces of the same, and other, local people. As the train rolls along, it connects up the faces like a huge cartoon.

The review in Le Monde suggested that JR "used" poor people as props for what amounted to a self-regarding art-form. The film, he insisted yesterday, was intended to be exactly the opposite. It consists largely of extended interviews with slum women whose faces have been used in JR exhibitions around the world, and, most importantly, in their own shanty-towns and favelas.

"The film is not about me at all. It is about the women in the photographs," he said. "It tells you about the heroism of their lives, but also why the pasting up of the photographs was important to them, as a way of reminding people, that slum-dwellers are not dangerous or inhuman, but people who have as much pride in their lives as you or me."

JR began his career 11 years ago when he found a cheap camera abandoned on the Paris Metro. He has never had a lesson in photography. He finances his artistic guerrilla activities all over the world by selling images in galleries for up to €30,000 (£25,000) a time.

JR is now working on other projects. One involves photographing old faces and posting them up against the backgrounds of ruined, or modernising cities. He was recently arrested for fly-posting his pictures in Shanghai.

Before he collects the TED prize in March, he has to work out what to do with the second part of the award. The prize gives its winner a "wish" – the chance to draw attention, and funding to a cause of their own choosing.

JR says that his work is fundamentally about "bringing people together". He says that he hopes to use the second part of his prize to extend that idea to "millions of people at the same time".

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