How I got that shot: JR’s photographer tells the story

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Portrait of JR. Courtesy Christopher Shay

The iconic portrait of 2011 TED Prize winner JR, jumping in front of a bold pair of eyes, was shot by the photographer and writer Christopher Shay. The story of how this photo came to be is an interesting one — and we asked Shay to tell it:

I met JR when I was writing and photographing for the Phnom Penh Post, an English-language daily newspaper in Cambodia. He was invited to show his work as part of the Phnom Penh Photography Festival, and I interviewed him while he and his assistants were covering the exterior walls of the French Embassy with 20 sets of giant black-and-white eyes. The location was poignant, and it’s not just because Cambodia was once a French colony. In 1975 as the Khmer Rouge were taking over the city, the French Embassy was where foreigners and high-ranking officials — even Soviet diplomats — were forced to take refuge. There’s one story of a former Prime Minister’s wife attempting to throw her baby over the wall before she was taken to be executed. Those walls have a historical resonance, and it’s a history that many in Cambodia still remember.

It was easy tracking him down. JR may be anonymous, but he’s not media-shy. He agreed to meet with me and he explained his career, which has been nothing short of meteoric. In 2008, he’d been photographing for seven years and had already had an iconic installation at the Tate. Though when he spoke, he barely mentioned the Tate or his establishment accomplishments — he focused on the work he did in poor areas in France and his recent trip to India. He peppered his stories with comments from local communities he worked. The women he photographed had clearly touched him.

He told me that his photos didn’t have any specific meanings, which I think is probably true. But in a general sense, all his work is about social justice and creating connections between different people. Whether it’s posting shots of Israelis and Palestinians with the same profession on the walls between the countries or putting up those shots of African and Brazilian women’s eyes in Cambodia, he’s compelling people to think about other people. Why are they making those faces? This sort of thinking compels people to realize what they have in common. One Cambodian man I spoke with identified with the shots so much he was absolutely certain that one of the pair of eyes was from a Cambodian woman. People look at them, they look at you back, and then the viewers make up stories and meanings. It’s an interaction with art that is accessible to everyone — it’s not just out of the gallery, it’s into impoverished, developing countries.

The interpretations of the art, though, is not always what you’d expect. A couple weeks after I interviewed and photographed JR, a moto-dop said a Cambodian 2-year-old started crying and trembling next to the walls; his mother had apparently told him the photos were the eyes of giants.

JR knows all the women’s stories behind the photo. I remember him speaking about the woman he’s jumping in front of; the woman was a prostitute and had been infected with HIV, but can’t leave her slum because it’s the only place she can get her medications. What impressed JR about her, though, was both strength of will and her happiness. The woman’s story, her vitality and how it manifests itself in that photo of her eyes is something many women in Cambodia and elsewhere can relate to. It’s something that transcends language, borders and politics — which is precisely the point.

I’d always imagined shooting a famous photographer would be intimidating or stressful, but it wasn’t so with JR. He’s soft-spoken, friendly, and you could tell he enjoyed what he was doing. He’s also young; no matter how talented you are, a person in his mid-twenties is going to be less intimidating than someone who has been in the game for decades. Perhaps one of the reasons why he’s able to get such great shots is a simple one: He’s nice. A lot of his most famous shots are from his 28mm project, where he shoots people up close with a wide-angle lens. In order to do that, people have to be comfortable with you invading their personal space. He asked to wear the sunglasses and hat as it’s become part of his image that he’s built up as an anonymous, globetrotting street artist. Hopefully, though, the TED Prize and whatever the enigmatic Parisian chooses as his wish for the world will add something to this image: the notion that beneath his trademark glasses and hat is really a preeminent advocate for social justice.

— Christopher Shay