Who is JR?

Not much is known about the semi-anonymous artist who calls himself "JR." We know that he is young—flirting with age 30—French, and presumably has a name involving the letters "JR." But not much else is known about the enigmatic past of the artist who has emerged on the world stage as the most lauded street artist since Banksy.

When people hear the words "street art," they immediately picture graffiti: spray-painted images, slogans, or "tags," illegally marked onto the side of derelict urban buildings. This idea of street art must be abandoned when examining the oeuvre of JR. While it is true that JR began as a traditional street artist, using aerosol spray cans to paint on buildings around his native Paris, his artwork and his vision drastically changed when he discovered a camera that had been lost on the Paris metro. He began to document his artistic escapades, and those of his friends, and eventually abandoned traditional graffiti for something more easily duplicable: photocopies of the pictures themselves. Thus began the principle act of JR's craft, the pasting of large copies of his photographs on the sides of buildings. As with most street art, this started out as an illegal act, and one that mainly took place on the sides of run-down urban structures.

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But then something happened: JR's art started to capture things that were extremely relevant to the general public, and capture them in extraordinary ways. His exhibitPortraits of a Generation spanned the 2006 youth protests and riots, a turbulent period in recent French history. It would've been easy for JR to capture scenes of burning cars, looted stores, or angry teenagers holding weapons; the essential stock photographs of a small-scale revolution, material that would surely gain him some acclaim and media attention. But JR did the opposite: in a time where there was rhetoric about the pervasive lines drawn by race and class in modern French society, JR chose to challenge the paradigms and media representations of the rioting youth. He visited friends in housing projects and captured them in a way the media had not, and perhaps had chosen to not: black French youth making funny faces, teenagers of Middle Eastern origin crossing their eyes at the camera— images that were unexpected, light-hearted, honest and, above all else, human.

JR blew up the photos to huge formats, and pasted them on the walls of the most bourgeois areas of Paris. It was all very illegal… at first. But there was something unmistakably powerful about JR's art: these were giant images of individuals previously viewed to be dangerous thugs, but here they were: kids, fooling around, unthreatening. JR's images worked to diminish the tension inherent in interactions between Parisians in the mainstream and in the margins. And then something happened: his images were wrapped around the buildings of the Paris City Hall. And then JR's street art became "official." Although he would have continued even if it hadn't.

From Paris, JR began to work on the largest canvas on earth: the world itself. His work has taken him all around the globe, from his famous Face 2 Face exhibition where he posted pictures of Palestinians and Israelis face to face in a number of Palestinian and Israeli cities and on the Wall itself; to the most dangerous favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, or the space above the High Line in New York City. His work captures the faces of the world's marginalized groups and populations: women, the extremely poor, the indigenous. He takes those who are often off the radar and makes them a large and profound part of the everyday experience of cities. His art does more than turns heads, it changes perceptions.

JR’s work has won wide international acclaim, even winning him the 2011 TED Prize. At first put off at the notion that he was supposed to save the world, JR sighed when the mandate was clarified: change the world, not save the world. “Oh, alright,” he said. “That’s cool.” In a TED Talk later in 2011, he continued by saying, “Art is not supposed to change the world, to change practical things, but to change perceptions. Art can change the way we see the world.” And his art really has.

Calah Singleton recently graduated from Yale, where she majored in Political Science. Her interests include urban studies, international development, and learning new languages. 

Images courtsey of www.jr-art.net

A New Model for Philanthropy

CATALYST speaks with Taylor Conroy about why it's time to abandon the "broken" traditional model of philanthropy and what it means to "devote his life to the world."

Tell us more about your theory that the traditional model of nonprofit fundraising—as you say the one where "organizations using guilt to make people cough up cash"—is broken. Is it time for us to abandon this model completely? Yes. As in it should end YESTERDAY. That system has been broken since it was devised in the first place. While it may have started from a place of people really just wanting to help, it has been bastardized and overdone to epic proportions. I believe that though this "model” is in place to raise funds to decrease poverty, it actually increases it. The model perpetuates a separateness mentality by making people—who are likely proud, beautiful, wonderful people—into "them." It makes westerners look at people in poverty as very different from "us," and they are not. 

If we in the developed world knew that one of our siblings was starving, malnourished and exposed to diseases that were easily preventable we wouldn't stand for it. Same as if it was a friend of ours. Why? Because we feel connected to them. We look at our siblings or friends as the same as us—and thus we would never stand for seeing them in unnecessary pain. When we see pictures of people in the developing world, we don't look at them as being the same as us. So we tolerate it. And poverty porn (which is exactly what those images are) is part of the reason we tolerate it

What made you decide to give 10% of your income away to causes you care about?’—especially when you were driving a car with no reverse and only had 3 t-shirts in your outfit rotation? My life coach told me to. I had just hired her, and thought she was nuts. I had gone to her to learn how to MAKE money, not give it away. She insisted. She had a nice big house on the ocean… I had a crappy rented basement suite, so I took her advice. I thought I would wait till I made money to give it, until I heard this: "If you won't give 10 cents out of a dollar, you will never give $100,000 out of a million."

As you know, social media can be an incredibly valuable tool for galvanizing money and support. There’s been a lot of debate (especially after Invisible Children’s Kony video) about how social media is used to bring attention to humanitarian issues. How do you use social media/the internet to make a difference, without over-simplifying or stripping the issues of substance? I don't use it to make a difference, and thus I don't have to worry about over simplifying or stripping anything. I use social media to share what I am up to, and be social because that's what it's for. The Kony 2012 video will be getting analyzed up and down for years. People will use it to hear themselves talk and feel like they know what they are talking about by saying it was positive or it was negative, when really… no one can know. We cannot see what is going to happen in the next 10 years because of it, or what will not happen because of it.

You wrote on your website “I vowed to devote my life to the world for all of 2012.” What does devoting your life to the world mean? That I would be of as much service to the world as possible for one year, without thinking about my own profit or advancement whatsoever. I would use, "is this the best thing I could be doing for the world" as my decision maker and only do what was my highest and best use for the world. Keep in mind though, I am a believer that the more fun I am having, the better my work is, and that one needs to be happy personally FIRST before being able to make others happy. So I concentrate just as much energy on making sure I am very happy.

In your TED talk you mention books that make you think “if everyone read this book, the world would be a better place.” What books have inspired you? Half the Sky. I am going to leave it at just that one for now.

What’s the one thing you can’t travel without? Audio books. Do you have any idea how much you can learn while in airports?!!?! I crush an audio book or two on every trip. As soon as I get into the airport, the headphones are in and I am learning about ancient spiritual teachings, world issues, great entrepreneurs, or how to have better sex. I love audio books… and if you listen to them on an iPhone, you can double the speed and RIP through ‘em.

What advice would you give to a young person working fulltime with a limited salary who wants to make a difference in the world? I wouldn't give them advice, because the biggest thing I have learned after doing this stuff is that I don't know anything. Everyone is different, and everyone has their own special thing to give. I just happen to be in a place where I feel I should be doing things on a big scale. But that will pass. I know that within the next 5 years, I will move into a new phase, and to tell you the truth, that phase may involve me meditating in a cave in India for a few years. All I know is I am going to keep doing what I think is right for me to be doing right NOW, cuz that's all I got.

Now that you’ve shown the world that you can raise $5000 with a text message, and $10,000 to build a school in 3 hours, what’s next for Taylor Conroy? Raising $10,000,000 to build over 1000 schools, libraries, water projects, and more to improve the lives of 1,000,000 deserving people in 10 countries. Then I am going surfing

The Serial Volunteer

Looking back, the majority of my most clairvoyant, my most grandiose and my most sincere moments have occurred when I’m flying 30,000 feet in the air. Darting through wispy white clouds, soaring over cerulean blue, and marveling at just how many parking lots we as a species require; also very quickly becomes a time of self-reflection and truth (granted, this is all provided you have a window seat).  On August 7th, 2011 flying home to New York City from the Dominican Republic, my partner had one of these moments. 

“I don’t want to be a serial volunteer,” she said after a particularly long spell spent looking out that magical aperture.  

Unsure of whether she was stating her resolution to never work at a breakfast food production company, I asked what she meant.

“I don’t want to continue jumping from volunteer organization to volunteer organization, never donating more than a few moments of my time,” she said. “How can we truly have a lasting positive impact if we never spend the time getting to know the nuances of an organization and the community that it works with?”

We’d spent the better half of two years volunteering with different organizations, always managing to find something wrong with each—something that would push us to continue our search for the perfect place, the perfect spot, the perfect fit.  At this rate, we were set to continue jumping around the globe merely dipping our toes in the humanitarian aid world.  And, for some people this is fine.  This can actually be an economical way to travel with the added benefit of supporting good organizations.  However our goal from the beginning was to find somewhere that we could help to create lasting and empowering change. 

Remembering this, I realized she was right. If we were serious about helping to create that lasting change, we would need to stop trying to find the perfect organization, because the perfect organization doesn’t exist—they change and evolve the same way people do. The same way our thought process of volunteering was evolving those 30,000 feet above the earth. Maybe if we invested ourselves in one organization and truly took the time to get to know the people of the community we were trying to help; maybe then we would find what we were looking for—impact.  But that wouldn’t happen if we kept jumping around.     

“I don’t want to be a serial volunteer either,” I said. 

And alive with the excitement that comes from life changing realizations, we talked all the way back home of our now imminent return to the Dominican Republic.


Adam Salvitti Gucwa is a seasoned traveler, entrepreneur and student whose volunteer focus centers around education and the Dominican Republic