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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - PPenh Photo Festival installation out at large

PPenh Photo Festival installation out at large

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081126_17.jpg

French photographer JR kicks off preparations for first ever Phnom Penh

photography festival with his installation at the French Embassy

Photo by:
Christopher Shay

JR in front of his installation on the wall of the French Embassy in Phnom Penh.

WEARING his trademark hat and sunglasses, JR observes a small crowd gathering in front of the French Embassy to watch his assistants put up his new photo installation. Curious, a small girl walks by, smiles and touches the wall.

This is exactly what the enigmatic photographer hoped for, to have Cambodians interacting with photography - some for the first time.

JR - he never reveals his full name - covered an exterior wall of the French embassy with 20 sets of women's eyes for this installation.

He first picked up a camera in 2001, and in only seven years has become one of the world's biggest photographers, at least in terms of the size of his images.

In May, the 25-year-old was invited by London's Tate Modern to exhibit a massive photograph on the exterior of the museum, making it just one of many buildings throughout the world on which JR has exhibited his photos.

JR's latest exhibition will open in Phnom Penh on Saturday, and while it may not be his biggest work to date - the Tate Modern exhibit measured 200 metres across - it may well be his longest.

The women JR photographed for this project came from the slums of Brazil and post-conflict countries in Africa. He said he wanted to show the "simple daily heroes who you don't usually see in the media".

...people try to find the exact meaning [in my work], but there isn't one.

JR chose to show only women's eyes because he believes that people's life histories can be seen simply by looking into their eyes.
"You can read so much in people's eyes," he said. "Even without asking for their stories, you can sometimes read their whole life."

The result is certainly arresting: a wall that looks back at you. But after the initial impact of the piece, the work pushes the viewer to imagine the rest of the face and to ask questions. Who are these women? What are their stories?

One of JR's main goals is not just to move art outside of galleries but to force people who do not normally think about art to interpret it.

More than the analyses of art critics and journalists, he appreciates everyday people who tell him how they feel about his pieces.

"I put [my work] on the street, and sometimes people try to find the exact meaning, but there isn't one. They have to think about it," he said.

As a teenager in Paris, JR became interested in graffiti. Though he was never passionate about the graffiti art itself, he admired the freedom of the street artist, and when he switched from the spray can to the camera, he kept the mentality of a graffiti artist.

Public surfaces

"Instead of going into galleries, I pasted my photos on the street. I just wanted to be as free as them [the graffiti artists]," he said. "I could work wherever I wanted. If I wanted to exhibit on the Champs Elysees, I could."

He first exhibited his work on the streets of Paris, but in the last few years, he has blown up his images and pasted them on streets and buildings in Israel, Palestine, Liberia and Brazil. Every public surface is fair game for JR.

One previous project involved taking close-up, wide-angle shots of Israelis and Palestinians with the same job. Then, he blew the photos up and pasted them next to each other on the dividing wall between Israel and Palestine. Most people could not even tell which of them was Palestinian and which of them Israeli.

For his current project, "28 millimetre", JR uses a 28mm lens exclusively to take portraits of everyday people. With such a wide-angle lens, the photographer is forced to be very close to his subject, and this proximity requires trust between the photographer and the model, JR said.

This relationship between the model and photographer is important to JR because once he leaves a place, it is the models who are forced to explain what he is trying to accomplish.

"Most of the time, they have to explain the project much more than I do. After all, they are the ones posted up in the street. They are the real heroes of the project," he said.

While JR is in Cambodia, he will continue working on the project by taking photos of Cambodian women with his 28 mm lens. He hopes to return to Phnom Penh in February with his new Cambodian prints, but this time his photos will not be part of a photo festival. All of Phnom Penh will be his gallery as he plans to paste his work throughout the alleys and side streets of the capital.

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