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Telling 'heroic' stories on a shifting urban landscape

Telling 'heroic' stories on a shifting urban landscape

French photographer and installation artist JR pays tribute to the hidden or overlooked lives of marginalised women in Cambodia

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Demolition of a statement.

THE French photographer and installation artist who goes by the initials JR returned to Phnom Penh last week to continue his global project of building up the public presence of women whose existence has been marginalised both globally and within their own communities.

While his last visit to Cambodia was under the umbrella of the Photo Phnom Penh festival, this time JR arrived on a solo mission, spending a week traversing the capital's urban jungle in search of suitable surfaces to post billboard-size prints of the photos of Cambodian women he took last November.

Through his intimate closeups of women's faces, JR seeks to view the "situation of a country through women's eyes". His frank images aim to highlight the plight of invisible women and simultaneously acknowledge their courage and the vital roles they play both within their communities and globally.

All the women I focus

on are for me daily heroes that you don’t usually hear about.

"All the women I focus on are for me daily heroes that you don't usually hear about," JR said. "I am interested in small fights of anonymous people."

The project has taken JR to some of the planet's poorest countries including Sudan, Sierra Leone, Brazil, Kenya and Liberia, where he has used a 28-millimeter wide-angle lens that calls for an extreme close-up between the photographer and the subject. The resulting images are characterised by overwhelming intimacy and intricacy.

Initially arriving in Cambodia as a "naive observer" with limited knowledge of the country, Cambodia's story unravelled itself to JR gradually.

"The first time I came to Cambodia, I knew there were a lot of women's issues here. I had in mind the most common ones such as prostitution, violence and the ones you can read about in the paper, so I met prostitutes, women who went through violence and ones that went though genocide and had pretty heavy stories," he said. "Then I realised there is another problem that is pretty heavy - the eviction problem - so some of the women [in the photos[ are victims of evictions."


JR's billboard-sized installations in Phnom Penh.

JR is quick to highlight that he usually arrives in a new country with very few contacts and no exact itinerary, often getting connected with his subjects with the help of locals and expats.

"I am always asking, ‘Do you know a woman that you admire?', so I get different visions depending on who I speak to and whether the person is young or old," he said. "When I came to Cambodia [last November], I asked everyone I met that lived here: ‘Do you know any woman you admire?', and then I would ask her whether she knew any women that she admired."

Continuing the dialogue between his subjects and the streets, JR thrives on the interdependence of the photographic image and the surrounding environment and is eager to find parallels between what is represented by the image and the quality of the surface.

"I like the walls to have texture, when they have bricks, because through the eyes of a woman you can tell [so much about her life], so many stories, that I think that when you mix it with the wall and the bricks, it gives this metaphor about the stories," he said, looking at the image superimposed on the brick wall behind him. "This is a really fucked-up wall. When we started pasting the photo [two days ago], it was already starting to come off from every side.

"[The Cambodian woman in the photo] is 58 years old, so she went through a lot of heavy stories in her life and now she is dedicated to kids. She takes kids from the streets and teaches them traditional Cambodian dance.

"Part of the women's eyes has disappeared already but I like that," he added.

Moving art out of the formal environment of a gallery, JR usually posts his images in impoverished areas, so that they are often the first taste of contemporary art for their audience.

And locals living around the areas where JR displays his work have an input into whether the image will be posted and how long it will stay up.

"I walk down a street and if I like a wall, then I will ask for permission [of the locals] and most of the time they have the final decision as to whether the art will exist.

"Putting photos on walls is like putting words on walls, and sometimes you [don't get the permission to do it]; and that tells another story and sometimes when you can do it, people rip them off the next day and that tells another story. So I kind of like that even if I put it and in the next hours it's already down," he said.

JR in front of one of his creations. TRACEY SHELTON

While JR likes his installations to provoke discussion, he admits that he has often found it difficult to elicit reaction from Cambodians who he says have been quite reserved about interpreting something so completely out of their frame of reference.

"Of course, we had some reactions, but we couldn't create some discussion like we had in other countries where it was easier to speak. I think most of the people don't understand [the photos] because the concept is completely new to them. First, they think it is advertising. Some people even said that it was ghosts and when I asked why, they explained to me the culture of ghosts. Most of the people want to know why these angry eyes, why on the wall, who is this for?

"In different countries like Africa or Brazil, there was much more of a reaction because that is their culture  - you come and talk straight away - while here the people are more shy. Some would come and ask questions but if they felt they don't speak much English, they would not approach and that is why we have tried to create comments [by approaching them]."  

JR's billboard-sized installations in Phnom Penh. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Behind the eyes

JR says that while he realises it is impossible for most Cambodians to see his installations as contemporary art, the most interesting part of the process has been to see how they try to reappropriate the images by speculating about the photos' subjects.

"As soon as they understand it's not advertising, they think there should be a reason for this picture to be here. And I think that is the best reaction that we get when people start to imagine what the life of the people is, what is behind these eyes. The workers [at construction sites] have said really good stuff even though they don't know the project  - this is an old woman, she may have seen a lot of things, we should respect her, she may have a lot of weight in her heart."

This guessing game  and pondering upon usually overlooked details in people's faces are exactly what opens people to viewing life through somebody else's eyes.  

In the same vein, JR admits that he started the project after a certain discomfort at how the media [in France] portrays people from developing countries.

"The media portrays them as a minority. I wanted to see the other side and that is why I came here," he said. "I have told Cambodians about how I used to see them from my country, and sometimes the caricature I have of them makes them laugh - they just tell me: 'I am just living my life and doing my job'."

Mich Vanny

Motorbike taxi driver
Do you like the photos?

I like all the pictures because they are of Cambodian people who are asking for help by their actions in the pictures.

I like the picture with the woman who is pointing her finger because it is very meaningful for me. She wants to point to the richer and more powerful people and tell them that they don't care about the poor people who live in ruined houses or are homeless.

What do you think the photos mean?

All the people in the photos are trying to tell the story of their difficult lives. I think that the person who has her eyes closed on one of the photos is a rich person who doesn't want to see the poor people's difficulties.

Dom Chhorvy

Fruit seller
Do you like the photos?

I don't know what all these pictures mean and I think it isn't good that they have been posted on walls and cars because they impact on our environment, and I don't like houses to have pictures on them. Billboard posters belong at the cinema.

I don't know who is in the photos. I don't like them at all because they are not like people, and I am afraid when I see them.

What do you think the photos mean?

The pictures look like ghosts. The one with the big eyes seems surprised with something, and the other one with closed eyes means that the person doesn't care about what is happening in front of them.

Ven Molis

Motorbike taxi driver

Do you like the photos?
I like the photos. They are strange, but I think that people should not put them up on the wall. They should find other, more suitable places.

What do you think the photos mean?

I don’t understand the purpose of the photos, but maybe the person who put them up there has his or her own reason for doing that. Maybe they face problems and they don’t know how to deal with them, so they speak through the photos that they take.

I think that the woman with closed eyes doesn’t want to see what is happening around her anymore because maybe something bad happened to her in the past.

Sok Sreypov

Do you like the photos?

I don’t like the photographs to be on walls and cars. They belong either on the cinema building or the Ministry of Culture building.

The pictures don’t attract me at all.

What do you think the photos mean?

I don’t know what the meaning of these pictures is, and I don’t understand what the artist is trying to say by putting them on walls. I think that the people on the photos seem like they are thinking of something secret.  

Interviews and Photos by Mom Kunthier


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