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The TED Prize-winning street artist shooting the world

By Dean Irvine, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • French photographer JR is the winner of the 2011 TED Prize
  • Projects appeared across the world and feature huge posters of portraits
  • Guards his identity, as his work often borders on the wrong side of the law
  • Latest work on show in the old neighborhoods of Shanghai

(CNN) -- Armed with a camera and an eight-foot brush, French photographer JR strides across the rubble of an old Shanghai neighborhood.

The latest TED Prize-winner has spent almost two weeks pasting some of the few remaining old areas of the city with giant portraits of its elderly residents. His current project, "The Wrinkles of the City," is almost over and the few intact houses of the neighborhood don't have much longer to last either.

"Those people, they become like UFOs in their own cities," he said of the people featured on the billboard-size posters ready for pasting.

"So, it's like a tribute. You can come back here in two years and it will be completely different. The places we are pasting are the last places that are like that, and the more you need to search and search to find them."

Until recently, finding JR himself hasn't been easy either.

He's constantly traveling and he closely guards his identity as some of his work can border on the illegal.

Video: Guerrilla artist shooting the world

While his profile until now has been low, it's inverse to the scale and reach of his work.

He's transformed cities and slums across the world with arresting portraits since 2006, putting the residents of Rio's favelas into the very fabric of their homes; pasting Palestinians and Israelis on the West Bank barrier; and highlighting, in billboard size, the plight of women in Africa in his "Women are Heroes" project.

See more of JR's work and previous projects

Each project, from finding subjects to photograph to pasting their images, takes around six months.

The TED Prize is great exposure, but it doesn't change my way of working. In a way I think my work naturally grows involving people.
--JR, photographer
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Behind each is a spectacle for the city's inhabitants and a social message. Behind the shades that help JR's "man of mystery persona" -- his real name and age is unknown -- is an energetic and enthusiastic artist.

What is known is that his vision for using urban spaces as a canvas for more than graffiti began around 10 years ago. He admits he wasn't "all that present at school" but took an option to do photography after finding a camera. He then moved from tagging to taking photos and pasting them on the streets of Paris.

"It was the time when the internet started ... I was that new generation where you were independent to show, and there were new ways of exchanging. So, the street would give me every exposure I needed, so it never made me want to go to a gallery," he told CNN.

He has since shown in galleries and doesn't find a contradiction in bringing his street projects into more refined environments, saying it provides a means to show more about the projects, plus providing a way for him to fund his work.

"That's the main line that I've chosen," he said. "To never accept sponsorship, to always be completely free and independent in 100 percent of the finance, so that then when you see the work you know there's no one else involved, no 'Coca Cola presents.' Branding is taking over. I could link my work with L'Oreal, but you won't see it in the same way."

JR has had plenty of offers to replicate his projects in numerous places even before the TED Prize was announced last week.

He was seen as a surprise choice for the $100,000 prize given by the non-profit organization that has single-handedly made lectures cool.

The award is given each year to those with a humanitarian vision, and they are charged with making "One Wish to Change the World." JR now joins a list of more recognizable, but diverse, names -- Bill Clinton, Bono and Jamie Oliver among others who have received the prize.

"For me the TED Prize is great exposure, but it doesn't change my way of working and it won't change it," he said. "It will help of course; but in a way I think my work naturally grows by involving people. It's the experience. I don't have a touring exhibition with the same photos going around."

While the final brush is given to a new poster, supportive local residents watch on while another rips down a previously posted portrait.

I never thought I would be able to paste an Israeli face on a Palestinian house. It's really about trying to reach the limits and sometimes they are much further than you think.
--JR, photographer

JR is amused by the event: "Even that day I got the TED Prize we were stopped doing our work, and that's part of it, you have to accept that," he said. "That means a lot, when you accept that it's the people in the street who are the curators.

"When we went into places where we thought we would be stopped, we haven't been. Even here I'm amazed but what we've done. Same in the Middle East. I never thought I would be able to paste an Israeli face on a Palestinian house ... It's really about trying to reach the limits and sometimes they are much further than you think."

He has also left something more concrete in some of the places where he's worked; in Rio he helped set up and build an arts center in a favela.

While he's not saying anything yet, the TED "wish" could be something similar on a larger scale. Whatever form it takes he's looking forward to engaging even more people with his work and challenging expectations.

"What surprised most people, when I was in Africa, they ask me 'What's the purpose of this? Is it advertising? Is it politics?' and I say 'No,' and there's always a big gap of silence."

"That's when it grows on them there are people overseas, doing things for just the love of doing them. You know they don't know how to take it, sometimes they stand there looking at the photos and ask 'Is it a free gallery?' And I like that confrontation," he said with a smile.

 
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