Interview with Marc Azoulay, manager of JR’s Inside Out project.
As far as participatory arts experiments go, Inside Out is staggering for its scope and scale. The French photographer JR launched the global participatory art project when he won the $1million Ted prize in 2011. He is the youngest ever recipient of the prize and the first artist. Building on his own ‘artivism’, in projects such as Women Are Heroes and Face 2 Face where his large scale portraits of community members where pasted across buildings, hill sides, trains and walls, Inside Out invited community organisers to take their own portraits and email them to the Inside Out studio. Here they are printed out as 90×135 posters which are sent back to the organisers who co-ordinate pastings and ‘actions’ in their community.
Six years on and the project is going strong. This month, Inside Out, releases a book which features some of the best of the 1650 projects that have taken place in 140 countries around the world. Approximately 315,000 people have contributed their portraits.
While so many socially engaged participatory art projects put the emphasis on the creation and making of the artwork, Inside Out is about getting those images out “into the wild”. It is more visual activism than participatory art. The focus is on putting the images out into the world, on coming up with ways and places to paste and use them to spread a message. JR is involved in locally rooted community art through Casa Amarela in Morro da Providencia, Rio but with Inside Out the proposal is different. It is an attempt to create a global platform and network. With the Inside Out team taking care of the image production and cost, community organisers are freed up to concentrate their energies on what they can do with their images, on what they can charge them with saying and where they want them to go.
I talked to Marc Azoulay, who manages Inside Out out of JR’s New York studio about the project and its evolution.
TF: Inside Out grew out of projects were JR was proactively involved in making and pasting pictures in specific communities. Inside Out is about the community coming to you rather than you going to them. Can you explain how the project works and what its role is?
MA: It stemmed from the fact that JR could not get to all the places that people wanted him to go to. He decided to launch Inside Out as more of a platform.
There are two ways to participate. There are the group actions where people from all over the world send us their photos and statements thorough the website, we print them as posters and send back to them. Then we collect the images of the actions, of the pastings of the photographs. They are all archived on our site. Actions are led by people, group leaders who come from the communities where the pictures are made and pasted or they are linked somehow to those communities. The group leaders organise everything. It might be free for the community, in the sense that if they are unable to give us a donation it is free, but it still requires a lot of work to organise and make the action happen.
The other way to participate is through the PhotoBooth trucks. We do gigantic PhotoBooth installations in different places or at events or festivals. The first one was in the Pompadieu in Paris but since then we’ve had dozens of them. We have two trucks in the US, one in Europe and one that is in Brazil right now. The trucks travel to places and allow people to participate instantly. People get their pictures right away. We go to schools and we were at the Olympics. Sometimes a city or an event have a special budget for us to come and other times we do it for free for example with our Back2School programme.
When we first launched in 2011 we did get a lot more actively involved in some actions such as the ones in Tunisia and in North Dakota that are featured in the documentary film about the project. In the movie you can see that there are some actions where JR personally got involved and went to go and help push the project. It was at the beginning and we were keen to understand how things were working and to help people launch their actions. However, we quickly realised that it was counter-productive for JR to go. We would find that the media would want to talk to JR and about JR and not about the photos and issues that people were trying to get attention for. It defeated the purpose so we decided pretty quickly that it was better for him not to be directly involved.
In what other ways has the project ethos changed over the last 5-6 years?
The project has changed in many ways. That was one of the first things we realised, that maybe JR shouldn’t be there. Also in the beginning we would send a poster to anyone that asked and individual posters. We quickly realised that people were just keeping them in their rooms and houses. It required huge logistics to print and send out so many individual posters. After a year we decided not to send individual posters and to create group actions where we could be surer that people would be organised and go out in the street and paste their photos. Last year we took it even further by requiring each action to involve 50 portraits or more which makes for bigger actions, bigger statements and more organisation but also more meaning. We are flexible on that rule so if people have a really strong action but don’t have 50 pictures then we’ll still do it.
With the PhotoBooths there have also been changes. In the first PhotoBooth at the Pompidou there was nowhere to paste and we just gave people their posters. But then we realised if you provide a wall and a platform for people to express themselves and paste their pictures right away then they will not want to take them home, they will understand more the meaning of the project. For instance when we did a PhotoBooth on Times Square we had 100s of portraits and people would line up for 2-3 hours to get their portraits done. They were seeing and watching us pasting them all on the floor and they would want to give their picture. Even if we didn’t have time to print their picture immediately or do the pasting in front of them or with them. It didn’t matter, it was important to them that their faces were added to that pasting. They did not want to keep their pictures for themselves.
I don’t think about it in terms of highs and lows but there have been times when we have had great actions and others were slower. And the project has evolved because the team changes.
There have been changes too in people’s approaches to photography and to images of themselves since the project started. In 2011 the term selfie had not been coined. When it became more mainstream people started to say we were just making selfies. They are not but they can be if you want. They are images of people but not necessarily selfies. People’s own changing views on photography and approaches to pictures of themselves has had an effect on shaping the project.
How do you define actions that haven’t work so well?
We don’t say whether an action has worked or not. What is a disappointment to me is that often the pictures that people send us are very bad. In the process of making the book we are looking at the 100s of 1000s of pictures we have received. For many actions we have no good pictures of the actions and pastings. Even though people have gone to the trouble of gathering the portraits, sending them to us, making donations, waiting for them, pasting them in their communities, getting authorisation to paste them and then they are not able to take one good picture of the portraits ‘in the wild’ as we call it.
The films and images of Inside Out actions ‘in the wild’ are powerful and core to communicating the project. In many ways they seem as important as the portraits, pastings and actions themselves. Could you describe your thinking as a team around the relevance and significance of the images of the actions?
What matters is what you do with the image. What matters is what stays. The image of the favela – how many people saw that in real life maybe 10s of 1000s in Rio over the 2-3 weeks it was up? But how many people have seen the image of it – millions and 100s of millions – because of how that image has travelled. The large poster sizes of the images and the fact that they are put in places where they should not be or where you do not expect them to be can makes images of the postings powerful. That is what we try to explain to people– think about the picture and where they will be pasted, think about how the images of the pastings will travel beyond that one place. We try to educate people about this so that they can understand how this can happen.
It can be frustrating as there have been 100s of actions where we have never seen any images. Sometimes people have been unable to do it, they thought that they could update the pasting or they didn’t get authorisation to paste or for some reason it became complicated. Sometimes they just didn’t take any pictures. Sometimes we just never hear back. This is strange but if it helps them in their communities to get a message out then good for them and this is great. It is just that we would have been a good platform for them to relay their statements to audiences.
So a central purpose of the Inside Out platform is to amplify the messages?
Yes. I know that not too many people go to the website to explore. For us the website is more like a big archive and catalogue for people to see how these images are being used. But in the last five years since the project was born social media has really taken off so we have a big audience. We have 100,000 followers on Instagram and a large audience on facebook. There is also JR’s instagram – he has 1 million followers – so that gives us exposure.
Does it matter who takes the portraits? Is it relevant?
No. Because it is not about taking the pictures. It is about getting the poster and doing something with it. For me it doesn’t matter who takes the pictures. But getting the information about the project out to all corners of the world has proven difficult. Sometimes it is the travellers who come from Western countries going to far away places that bring the project to those places. Of course it can be said that the project has been brought by an outsider into these communities but to me it would not have happened otherwise. To me, the important thing is that it happens rather than who takes the pictures.
At the last count there have been 1650 actions in 140 countries. Do you noticed differences between different cultures and countries in how the project is adopted, in how the images are used and in the different responses they generate?
Definitely. It is received very differently because photography is treated very differently in different cultures. In some countries and places taking pictures and/or pasting them is controversial or even illegal. Pictures are taken down straight away. We have been amazed with how people have made this project their own. Pictures have been put in so many places. When they have been unable to paste people have protested with the pictures, putting them on boards.
The project that has generated the most media attention was actually not pasted onto walls. The image of a child was rolled out of the ground. It was the size of a football field. JR got invited to many places to talk about this project. People are not used to seeing pictures that are so big except for advertising purposes. So people are always wondering – why, what is this about? The idea is to create a link between communities, between people, for people to connect with the faces of others. To get people to ask why is this person here? To trigger a reaction in people, to get them to think about what these people are saying.
For its great scope and diversity, Inside Out uses a very singular visual frame, with the standardised format of the close-up black and white portrait often with the dot background. As a team what do see as the pros and cons of working within this very defined visual aesthetic?
The constraints make the project. It is what the project is. The posters are a set size and there are clear rules. It can be just one person, no animals, there can be nothing written, no logos. The idea is that through the face you can convey a message, convey your statement. You set the frame and then you let the people do what ever they want within that frame. You have to have it standardised. We have had pictures of fish, of families, at the beginning people would send anything. We cannot do that. We need to have rules. It standardises the image and then the creativity gets concentrated into something else – it puts the focus onto what you chose to do with the image, where you put it, how you disseminate it, how you present it.
In his Ted talk JR asked “if art can change the world?’. What are your thoughts as a team on this question?
In his second TED talk a year after we started Inside Out, JR says it is not a question of art changing the world but of using art to draw attention to things. That art can be used to change perceptions. As people have come to see and understand the project we have seen better and better actions. People are coming to better understand its value and its potential. I think they are coming to understand more how art can be used to change our communities.
What has surprised you about the Inside Out process?
When we started the project it was supposed to be for a year. When you make a TED wish, it is normally done over a year. But we have been amazed. We have been amazed by how people donate. There is the option to donate $20 a poster if you can. We also offer to send it for free if people do not have any money or they can make a partial donation. But we have been amazed by how people keep donating. It is not enough to support the project so of course JR continues to cover the costs and we generate some income from other places. We also had always felt that if the project was too successful it would be a problem because everyone would be asking to participate and we would not be able to handle it.
Many things have been surprising but we did not have expectations. When we do a project – with Inside Out or as JR’s studio – we do not think this or that is going to happen. We just do something that has never been done before and you can’t predict what will happen. That is the difference between business and art, a business cannot fail but art can fail and that is ok. There is no right or wrong answer. It is however people take it.
What is the future for Inside Out? When or where does it end?
We have no idea. The book will probably draw more attention to the project which will mean more people want to participate. If there is no demand for the posters and the project dies, then that is fine… if the project lives on then it is because there is a need for it. Either way whether it lives or dies – it is fine, there is no bad outcome. We believe in the project and we believe that there are causes we want to bring attention to but we want people to make their own projects, we do not want to push the project on them.
We are very lucky that we have been donated a studio in New York so we can operate from here but maybe one day we won’t have this space anymore … who knows .. that is the beauty, we don’t have a plan.