Looking at one hillside favela outside Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 2008, you would have seen its residents staring back at you—their portraits covered dozens of its crumbling houses.
It was the work of a photographer and street artist known as JR, who, since 2004, has been waging a guerrilla campaign to raise the profiles of people living in some of the world’s most difficult places. For his public projects, which are often monumental in scale, JR takes intimate, playful black-and-white portraits of ordinary people and posts the blown-up prints on houses, trains, and city walls.
JR developed his technique after the ethnically charged unrest in Paris in 2005, when he decided to combat the media’s presentation of the city’s marginalized communities with his camera.
Since then, he’s taken his large-scale public art to Israel, Palestine, and Sudan. For his “Women” series, JR recently traveled to Kenya, where he covered the rooftops of one of Africa’s largest slums with images of the eyes and faces of the women who live there. The prints, which covered more than 20,000 square feet, were made on a waterproof vinyl so they would also protect the residents’ houses in the rainy season.
Now JR’s prints are being sold in Sotheby’s and he’s represented by Steve Lazarides, the same dealer who backs Banksy and Blu. But he’s channeling this commercial success back into his mission—making people’s faces stand out in the slums.