On the 20 OctoFrench street artist JR receives TED Prize for 2011ber 2010 Parisian street artist – known only by his initials JR – was awarded the prestigious annual TED Prize. Past winners include mainstream icons like Jamie Oliver, Bill Clinton and Bono, and like those before him, 2011’s seemingly unconventional winner received $100 000, and on a much – metaphorically speaking – larger note, was also granted one wish to change the world!




A non-profit initiative, TED started with humble beginnings in 1984 as a conference to bring together people from three different worlds: Technology, Entertainment and Design. With spirit and integrity, the different way in which JR views the world, so too does TED, awarding him and exposing his projects to the world. Transforming lives and landscapes around the world, the journey of JR is one that has really just begun.

From Art to Action: JR’s journey

From Africa to the Middle East to the slums in Paris, the world is JR’s gallery and the dynamic urban environment is his canvas. A splintered broken bridge, a symbolic concrete wall and abandoned undergrounds… the most unlikely of places are given life by JR’s enormous black and white photo prints. Pervasive and gaining more recognition every day, JR’s art penetrates tension-ridden or ostracised urban areas – creating an aesthetic dialogue with the people, the leaders, and the global masses who have stopped asking questions and making a stand.

A serendipitous beginning, it was after JR discovered a camera in a Paris subway that ignited his passion for art, photography and all that is urban. Embarking in 2004 to document European street art, he found himself in Clichy Montfermeil, a commune in the suburbs of Paris.

Amidst working-class spaces, he introduced his style to the bourgeoisie, pasting large black-and-white photographic prints of the neighbourhood ‘thugs’. Later returning to the same suburb in 2006, JR earned the trust of the locals and “portrayed them playing their own caricature”… This endeavour would become the first series of his 28 Millimeters project, entitled ‘Portrait of a Generation’.

JR reflected: “In the same media that we saw the suburbs, I saw, everyday, the Middle East conflict.” With this in mind, JR and his friend Marco journeyed east to discover the conflict themselves. This became a journey that would culminate to the second part of 28 Millimeters, entitled ‘Face 2 Face’, which is now recognized as the biggest illegal photo exhibition in the world.

Avoiding the police and rather involving the community, JR, Marco and his team placed the huge photographic portraits of the two opposing sides face-to-face in eight Palestinian and Israeli cities, and on both sides of the security fence/separation barrier.

Walking away from the Middle East bearing only the effects of the harsh sun, JR had used creativity to show “the limits in [the Middle East] are not where we think they are,” and that “the real heroes are not sometimes who you think they are, they are right there in the street everywhere around you.”

Travelling into the heart of Africa, Brazil, India and Cambodia, JR – a beautifully relentless vagabond – would complete 28 Millimeters with his last series entitled ‘Women’. Pasting massive photographic prints of every-day women all over the slums as well as on motor vehicles, shop exteriors and even on moving trains… ‘Women’ become an empowering kinetic showcase.

JR talks a bit about what inspired this series: “Arriving in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Sudan or Kenya… I started in Africa and I realized that the men were holding the streets, and I would have to confront them. They would be the curators of my exhibitions, so I chose the women as my subjects because I think that the women reveal the whole condition of the society. I wanted to confront those portraits with the streets.”

JR saw anonymous women as daily heroes, ambitiously photographing them and integrating them (the art) in their own environment. Theirs, like his, is a story that travels… and through this one can see his/her life and the world in which they live with new eyes.

Aside from his personal projects – Wrinkle of the City and Unframed – over the next two months this Robin Hood-like hero will be working closing with the TED community “to develop an audacious wish that will involve the world in a brand new piece of art.”

The wish will be announced in February 2011 in Long Beach, California. In a video that J R’s close team put together in the hope of answering some important questions, the 27-year-old artist-cum-humanitarian concludes with a poignant response: “I’m not trying to change the world, but you know when I see a smile up there in the favelas (name given to shanty towns in Brazil), or down there in Cambodia, in a way I feel like I’ve achieved my goal”

In a world that is obsessed with being recognized, being rewarded and mostly remaining within the ‘norm’, it is highly inspiring and refreshing to discover an individual who not only finds sanity in his anonymity but is truly using his creative talent to not change the world, but at least make a dent. And this dent is looking to be far from small… It will ultimately involve the entire world, which is exactly the type of project I would imagine world-traveller and humble artist JR to make happen.

JR’s wish: Inside Out

At his acceptance speech for his TED prize, JR challenged individuals to take part in his global street art project. Inside Out is JR’s vision of how art is able to inspire change in the world.  The project seeks to have as many global participants as possible. He is calling for people everywhere to upload photos onto the projects website, and its success will be judged by the number of participants. The uploaded images will then be used on billboards, printed in black and white, preaching unity and inspiring change.