Before he won the TED prize and collaborated with Agnes Varda; before he was given a day to take over the Louvre and invited to paste his work on entire houses; before he was nominated for an Oscar and partied with Bono, french photographer and street artist JR had only one camera and a 28mm lens.
This created a challenge. He wanted to take a series of intimate portraits of citizens of the French neighborhood of Le Bosquet. The neighborhood had received negative press as a result of the 2005 Paris Riots, and JR wanted to challenge the notion that its citizens were thugs and thieves through a series of portraits. However, because he only had one wide-angle, prime lens, he couldn’t zoom in with his lens. Instead, he had to make himself physically close to his subjects–as close as ten inches from their face.
I’ve learned this in my own work. I started making documentaries when I was ten years old. (When I did my first interview, I would ask my question, press record on my family’s camcorder, and then say “action," indicating to my interviewees that they could start talking). What I have gradually learned since then is something that is embedded in JR’s work: in order to understand someone, you have to make yourself present in their world. You have to zoom with your feet.
I first experienced this when I was sixteen, leaning nervously on the counter of the Little Tibet Gift Shop while asking the shopkeeper–a Tibetan living in exile–to tell me her story. It was my first interview. Tseten spent twenty minutes describing her family’s escape from Tibet–walking through the Himalayas in the dead of night, being tied to a tree while sleeping so she wouldn’t roll down the mountain; working on road construction at age eight to help her family make an extra 25 cents a day; and learning her first sentence in a foreign language: “mother, please give me something.” She said it to passerby on the streets of India as she held out her hands, begging for food.
I had prepared for Tseten’s interview by researching the history of Tibet, trying to sift through political arguments and determine who was right and who was wrong. But none of that seemed to matter after talking with her. By zooming with my feet, I was invited to walk in the footprints of someone else’s story–a story that had little to do with international political dynamics but everything to do with the human will to survive.
Whether it’s filming shopkeepers, writing an article on nomadic communities or pasting large portraits of Parisians, I believe that the philosophy of proximity embedded within JR’s work should resonate with all documentarians. Genuine understanding, righteous documentation, and symbiotic relationships are only passible through the shared vulnerability that comes with physical proximity.
(Note: the description of zoom with your feet is adapted from a gallery talk I gave for my “We See the Change” Exhibition)