This morning I saw an image from this weekend’s Millions March in New York City, it moved me so much I haven’t stopped thinking about it all day. It was a photo of a huge crowd of protesters, at the front of which was a line of people holding up boards. When held together, these showed a close up photograph of the eyes of a man. The man was Eric Garner, killed by police earlier this year in Staten Island, one of the many recent cases of white police brutality against a black member of the public in the USA.
The NYC Millions March was attended by over 10,000 people from all different backgrounds, protesting against this sort of discrimination from the police and justice system.
The image has stuck with me since seeing it. There’s a sort of symbolism to it. The front line of a group of peaceful marchers holding up panels covering most of their bodies. They reminded me of anti-riot police, protecting themselves with full-body shields at the front line of a violent confrontation.
Production of this huge photographic banner was orchestrated by the Inside Out Project, created by French artist and photographer JR.
JR is an influential public artist who for many years has been creating large-scale installations using just black and white photographic portraits, pasted in public locations.
I was first drawn to JR in 2011 when he won the TED prize for his Women Are Heroes project, for which he travelled to various parts of the world to meet women who were the pillars of their communities throughout times of great conflict, unrest or neglect. He pasted giant photos of them to public buildings, in places that were often relevant to their turbulent stories. When he was finished pasting, he packed up and left, never publicising his work to local authorities. This meant that each time, if local press wanted to find out about why the huge images had suddenly appeared, they were forced to enter these small, poor communities, to look for the women and talk to them.
JR’s global Inside Out Project has been running for nearly 4 years. It encourages people to come together and tell the world about something they stand for, believe in or wish to protect. Participants take their own portraits, send them to the project HQ, and within weeks, they receive large black and white prints which they are encouraged to paste somewhere public, somewhere important to them. (Last year I was thrilled to see pasted portraits from Inside Out at the Southbank skatepark during the Long Live Southbank campaign).
As a result, the project has built an enormous global network of people and causes. Male and female, young and old; people from all cultural backgrounds are finding reasons to protest, to take a stand, to tell their stories. 223,927 portraits have been pasted, involving 902 Group actions in 112 countries. (I can’t recommend enough a look at the map on the EXPLORE page of the project site to see just how diverse the participants are).
The photos at the Millions March were specially made by the Inside Out project and they highlight a really important feature of public art and the reasons it’s so important in our society today.
You may see the image, read about the project and decide that it’s nothing worth talking about: A distraction from the main issue at hand; another artist trying to create an iconic photo opportunity; a celebrity strapping themselves to a cause by visual association or by just jumping on the bandwagon. But this image of Garner at the front of the Millions March helps illustrate exactly why we need our artists to work closely with communities trying to take a stand.
The Inside Out project is simple, clear and serves a purpose. The project is by no means trying to take the spotlight away from people’s causes, it is just giving them a visual platform from which they can elevate their stories. JR’s work has focused around a range of individuals: from abused women; to the neglected elderly; to Israelis and Palestinians from either side of the wall; to the disillusioned youths of Paris’ infamous Bosquets housing project. Each time he presents us with an individual’s face, alongside their personal history- told by them.
At the Millions March, people came together to stand up for equal rights for all people, of all races. For people like Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Delbert “Demz” Rodriguez (who featured on the other Inside Out banner) .
The images by no means saved the day, but they did put a face to the voice of the protest. These men may not have been able to stand up for themselves this weekend, and many of the people marching may not have been members of the black community in NYC, but that’s not the point. By marching together, the protesters showed solidarity, and they told the world that it’s about time we start seeing this issue through the eyes of the victims.
The message couldn’t be any clearer.
If you have something you want to shout about, you too can get involved in the Inside Out Project here
Please check out JR’s TED talk from 2011 to see just how important art can be in the fight to get people’s voices heard. Watch it here