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Paris Confronts Its Prejudices

Bizarre, startling posters appeared on the walls and street corners of Paris this year. They showed faces – mostly black faces -- contorted into outlandish grimaces, with teeth bared, nostrils flared, eyes crossed.

The provocative photos were the work of a Paris street artist who wanted people to confront stereotypes. His giant photos asked passers-by an in-your-face question: When you see a kid from the housing projects, do you see a bogeyman?

Almost exactly a year ago, when riots broke out in France's troubled suburban housing projects, news reports broadcast countless photos of hooded youths setting fire to cars. French photographer JR, who goes by his initials only, thought about those images, the stereotypes they reinforced and how he could use photography to bring a different message.

2"After the riots, Parisians viewed suburban kids as extraterrestrials," JR said in an interview in his Paris studio. "On television, you always saw them wearing masks. People said, 'Those kids are all the same. Everybody who comes from those areas took part in the riots.' Everybody was afraid of them, and so I decided to take pictures of them looking like monsters or extraterrestrials."

The influential street artist teamed up with an actor and documentary maker named Ladj Ly to recruit subjects at a housing project north of Paris in Clichy-sous-Bois, where France's unrest started last Oct. 27.

The riots broke out after two youths were electrocuted in a power substation while hiding from police, and they were fueled by such problems as racism and unemployment. Many of the rioters were the children of immigrants, and the unrest forced France to confront decades of discrimination against minorities as well as a failure to integrate immigrants and provide opportunities for poor youths.

JR didn't grow up in the projects, and he says he can't speak for the teenagers and young adults who appear in his photographs, also published this month in a book, "28 millimetres." He wants his photographs to speak for themselves.

They have had a much wider showing than he envisioned.

The 25-year-old photographer, who has a large following at home and abroad, is also part graffiti artist and performance artist. Usually, he has to hide from police as he plasters his work illegally on buildings at night, which is why he keeps his identity anonymous.

When JR did a similar exhibit in 2004, hanging giant photos on the walls of a suburban housing project, local authorities lodged a complaint against him. But that was before the riots and before France's soul-searching.

This time, something unusual happened. Officials invited him to hang his work on a community center in the center of the capital. His gallery of faces was pasted on the walls outside Paris' European House of Photography. And his work helped inspire an exhibit that opened last week in Clichy-sous-Bois. Twelve well-known photographers, including William Klein, Marc Riboud, Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Sarah Moon, took pictures around Clichy, and many of them have been papered on buildings and on billboards.

Sponsored by the town's city hall, the public relations project is called "Clichy Sans Cliché," or "Clichy without Cliches." It is a reaction to the images of burning cars that were flashed around the world -- pictures that French media eventually stopped broadcasting, for fear they were encouraging the violence. The project's Web site asks: "What if we showed life in Clichy the way it is?"

JR's pictures are on display in a concurrent showing in Clichy-sous-Bois. After its stint in Paris, the art is back where it was born.

"The photos have a lot of messages," JR said. "But the main one is: 'Look at me, I exist, I'm larger than life."'

To find out more about the artist and his work, see: