On December 13, 2014, ten days after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict a New York City police officer in the killing of Eric Garner, as many as 50,000 people marched down Fifth Avenue from a rally in Washington Square Park to voice their anger, their dismay, and their resolution to end the reign of unchecked police brutality directed at black citizens. Leading the cortege was a line of protesters carrying black-and-white posters that formed a massive close-up of Eric Garner’s eyes. An image of the vigil was widely circulated by observers, the press, and organizers. It was powerful, spectral: the disembodied gaze of a dead man staring out at the city whose lawmen had needlessly and callously ended his life.

The poster assembly was the creation of a young French artist and unabashed humanitarian who goes by the moniker “JR,” and who has emerged in recent years as one of the most ambitious figures in the world of art. JR’s work blends protest and entertainment, high art and street art, the global and the local, the photograph and the guerrilla fly-poster, into one continuous and potentially open-ended project. In 2011, he was awarded a $100,000 TED prize to create his “Inside Out Project”: Participants take portraits of people in their own communities and send them to JR, who transforms them into posters and returns them to their “cocreators” for pasting on the streets, buildings, and sidewalks where they live. According to the Inside Out Project’s website, more than 230,000 posters have been printed and distributed in this way, to at least 124 countries around the world. Human faces a story tall and eyes the size of shipping containers have materialized in slums outside Nairobi and in favelas in Rio; on the Israeli separation wall in the West Bank; on buses and trucks in Sierra Leone; among peace activists in Juarez and gay-rights activists in Moscow; and on buildings in Tehran, 
Medellín, Jaipur, and the South Bronx. A poster of a young girl designed to be visible to US drone pilots was unfurled in an undisclosed location in Pakistan. At the solidarity march in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the eyes of the magazine’s murdered editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, like those of Eric Garner in New York, hovered over the crowd.

More recently, JR has turned his attention to the experience of immigration to the United States. Last fall, he created an installation at the abandoned Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital, pasting archival images of the interned arrivals to the New World amid the ruins. In April, the cover of The New York Times Magazine featured an installation by JR about a young man walking in the city. The subject, Elmar Aliyev, from Azerbaijan, was one of 16 newly arrived immigrants whom JR had photographed on the street. In the early-morning hours of April 11, JR and his crew pasted Aliyev’s portrait onto the pavement of the plaza in front of the Flatiron Building. The work was largely invisible to pedestrians because of its size, but was legible from a great height: time-lapse photography taken from the Flatiron Building’s roof captured the making of the portrait for the Times website. JR then ascended in a helicopter to snap the cover shot, a bird’s-eye view revealing an anonymous friendly giant framed by yellow cabs, crosswalks, and the restless people of New York. The result is both spectacular and almost worthy of Escher in its recursive visual form: an aerial image of a poster of a photograph, all by JR. The installation, like all of the artist’s work, was designed to be ephemeral. Made of only paper, ink, and glue, it was no match for the city’s Department of Sanitation and was gone by nightfall.

The brief life of these works is fundamental to their iconographic power. While JR prizes and even showcases the fly-posting process, methodically recording the work of art as a site of collaboration and production, he knows that his art will only find its true audience online, multiplied indefinitely in the Internet’s wilderness of mirrors. It is the virtual aura surrounding the pasted image that gives the work its special currency. Like a hacker, JR intervenes suddenly and, it seems, randomly anywhere in the real world, but relies on his ability to retreat just as swiftly and neatly into the anonymity of the virtual realm. The act of appearing and disappearing, like the magician’s hat trick, is part of the show.

* * *

JR first attracted attention in 2005, when riots erupted in Clichy-sous-Bois and other banlieues, the highly segregated ghettos on the periphery of the French capital. President Jacques Chirac, in close consultation with Nicolas Sarkozy, then minister of the interior, declared a three-month state of emergency. The riots were sparked by the death of two teenagers, who were electrocuted while trying to hide from the police in a power substation. The French call such events a bavure (a smudge, an ugly streak or stain), a suggestively graphic term for police brutality. The magnitude of the 2005 riots was unprecedented, but the circumstances fit a pattern of violence and stagnation that has marked the last 30 years of French public life. Mathieu Kassovitz said he was inspired to write the screenplay for his groundbreaking 1995 film La Haine in response to the killing of a young Congolese man who was shot while in police custody, an event that sparked riots in 1993. Deaths at the hands of police set off new riots at Villiers-le-Bel in 2007, and yet again at Firminy and Montreuil in 2009.

JR’s response was to humanize the inhabitants of the banlieues. Working in 
Clichy-sous-Bois and Les Bosquets, he used a 28-millimeter lens to create fish-eye portraits of mostly black and North African men making faces for the camera, and then illegally fly-posted the images in the bourgeois heart of Paris. He called the project “Portrait of a Generation.” At first, the municipal authorities tore the pictures down. Then, recognizing the project’s popularity and warm reception by cultural critics, they changed their mind and invited JR to line City Hall with his work. It was his first big break.

Like Banksy and other street artists, JR prefers to operate with a level of anonymity. He is intentionally vague about his background and always appears in public wearing a trilby hat and dark Ray-Bans. To me, his accent and diction strongly suggest certain well-to-do arrondissements of Paris, but I’m open to correction. What JR has publicly shared is that when he was 15, he began spray-painting graffiti on the streets and rooftops of Paris as part of a tagging crew. Soon he started documenting the crew’s exploits with a camera and sticking the black-and-white images on city walls, signed and framed with aerosol paint in what he called galleries de rue, or street galleries. He described his new vocation as that of a photograffeur. Both of these clever coinages aim for street cred while nodding to the professional art world.

The underlying principle of JR’s work is visual democracy: the idea that anyone and everyone, regardless of background or social status, can occupy a public space with 
images—a privilege typically reserved for the state or commercial interests. One of the lessons that JR learned from his early street galleries was that he could leapfrog over institutional boundaries, reordering the relationship between artist and patron and scrambling the one between artist and audience. He was also quick to grasp the ways that the Internet would amplify this effect by separating the work’s site of production from its site of dissemination, thereby democratizing access to the power of images and allowing remote installations to circulate virtually and attract attention from distant audiences.

In one of JR’s most iconic pieces, a black man faces the camera menacingly, brandishing a DV cam in such a fashion that it could be mistaken for a gun. A group of young boys stands directly behind him. In London in 2008, I was surprised to find myself staring down the barrel of the camera as I came to the Millennium Bridge; JR had fly-posted the image opposite it, on the facade of the Tate Modern. The picture perfectly embodies his idea of visual democracy: It tells us that the dispossessed—here represented almost entirely by race—possess a weapon they intend to train back on us, their viewers. The image equates filmmaking, and image-making more generally, with urban guerrilla warfare, while also playing on the stereotype of the gun-wielding black man, forcing the viewer to recognize how deeply etched that trope is in our visual culture.

* * *

The camera-toting man is Ladj Ly, a black documentary filmmaker and producer from Montfermeil, with whom JR has long collaborated. Their relationship can’t be gleaned from JR’s image, however, and despite all the ways the image seeks to scramble certain symbolic meanings, it also seems to rest on actual relations of power. Ladj Ly’s image has made JR famous; but for all of JR’s good intentions, the reverse cannot be said of him. At the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, JR presented a short work called Les Bosquets, which tells Ladj Ly’s story through a combination of images of Montfermeil and a modern ballet choreographed by JR. The dance was also performed last year at the New York City Ballet. It’s an audacious project, reminiscent of Kanye West’s forays into the fusion of hip-hop and classical music, but it’s quite clear that JR is necessary for Ladj Ly’s story to be told: No one invited the black documentary-maker from Montfermeil to present his own films about the French ghetto.

If JR is self-conscious about the “optics” (to use an Obama-era locution) of a white Frenchman swooping into the “developing world,” or even the highly racialized ghettos of his own country, on a mission to give them a face and tell their stories, he never shows it. The humanitarian universalism typical of French attitudes toward race and cultural difference probably accounts for some of this: It is hard to imagine an American artist operating with quite as much insouciance. (They would probably want to talk about their own identity.) Which is not to say that JR is inattentive or indifferent to context. On the contrary, all of his projects emphasize the role of communal participation and direction, and he’s made a special point of drawing attention to the plight of women, something the communities he enters sometimes resist. The best introduction to JR’s project is his 2010 film Women Are Heroes, a stunning panorama of women on three continents, whose courage and dignity these photographs strive to capture and make visible, both within their own communities and to the wider world. JR insists that his art is engaging rather than engagé, but that he does want it to be a vehicle for the political voices of others. Think of him as a visual amplifier, a platform that plugs dispossessed communities into the global economy of significant images under the sign of “art.”

But visual democracy is something of a mirage, because everyday relations of power have a way of reasserting themselves. It is highly ironic, for instance, and perhaps not entirely coincidental, that the increasing prominence of JR’s (and Banksy’s) “high art” graffiti has coincided with the sharp decline of illegal “street graffiti,” even though both artists have traded on its radicalness. In Paris today, there is far less illegal graffiti than when JR was getting his start in the late 1990s, and tagging subway cars or buildings in gentrifying New York City is now uncommon except in some corners of the outer boroughs. It’s true that JR has worked without government support or corporate sponsorship, but in the last resort, holding the right passport and having the right connections matter greatly—as does the content of the message. In 2012, JR collaborated with the Cuban-American artist José Parlá for “The Wrinkles of the City,” a project in Havana that involved portraits of elderly citizens who had lived through the Revolution. But when Danilo Maldonado Machado, a Cuban graffiti artist and dissenter who tags as “El Sexto,” inscribed “Raúl” and “Fidel” on two live pigs last year, he was thrown in jail and remains there to this day.

The political power of the image, harnessed to the Internet’s viral lightning rod, has often promised more than it can deliver. At the height of the so-called Arab Spring, there was a heady sense that the rapid dissemination and sharing of images and information enabled by Facebook and Twitter, in the hands of a savvy young generation, might provoke revolutionary transformation. Five years on, the power structure in Egypt is very much unchanged, with only the figureheads exchanged like masks at a ball, and Libya is under the control of terrorist cartels. The images of Eric Garner’s murder, replayed like a snuff film before the entire world, were not able to secure him justice. A painful lesson of the last few years has been that real democracy is not nearly as easy to come by as public attention, even when that attention is produced in massive doses. None of this invalidates JR’s investment in promoting the dignity of common people, or the impressive array of causes and coalitions that have flourished because of his interventions. His work is far more attentive and consequential than most of what is called “hashtag activism.”

And yet it’s hard to shake the sense that JR’s work is overly slick. There’s a fascinating scene in Women Are Heroes that takes place in the Kibera slums outside Nairobi. In one of his few interjections in the film, JR records himself pitching his project to a group of skeptical men from the community. Two men in the crowd start arguing about the proposal. The first one asks, “But how will it help?” The other responds, “It will help because it is going to show the picture of Kibera.” “And after showing the picture?” “After… it is like marketing. It is going to market Kibera.” It’s a credit to JR that he includes this exchange in the film, but it inadvertently raises some discomfiting questions: Is “marketing” here an analogy or a strategy? Is JR “marketing” the dispossessed? And after showing the picture? It’s the right question.

* * *

When Susan Sontag wrote in 1977 that “today everything exists to end in a photograph,” she sounded oracular. In the era of the smartphone and Instagram, that statement is banal, perhaps chillingly so. Sontag famously warned that photographs can give us an unearned understanding of things past. One could say by extension that the Internet tends to give us an unearned relation to the present. If there is a seductive facility to JR’s images (and I think there is), it lies in the temptation of this unearned relation. Like the language of advertising, these images short-circuit our affective instincts, compressing emotion and attention into currency; they promise (falsely) to snap us into mutual connection, without the cost and friction of lived experience. In JR’s model, art is predicated not just on exploiting but also literalizing the digital realm’s economy of attention, creating works that are inherently “about” generating “views” in more or less the same way that much online content is produced and organized with the aim of attracting eyeballs, creating a voyeuristic “event” that is then serially reproduced, shared, and re-created (where possible) until the motif has been exhausted.

In many ways, JR’s work is perfectly aligned with the ethos of social media. He “crowd-sources” most of his projects, persuading people to give him personal photos—their own social and cultural capital—and then transforming them into the materials of mass spectatorship. Participants get to look at themselves, and their profiles are beamed and wheat-pasted around the world. JR gets to profit, and his own growing stature feeds an ever-expanding operation of virtual presence. Whether or not the intentions are noble, and the images appear on the sides of buildings or on Facebook, the practice is, formally speaking, parasitic. Like so much of the tech industry, it cannot escape the lure of boosterism; it lives or dies by relentlessly producing and attracting ephemeral attention. Whatever one thinks of JR as an artist or a humanitarian, he is a manifestation and manipulator of the moment, and he has tapped into something fundamental to our zeitgeist.

When Guy Debord published The Society of the Spectacle in 1967, the Internet was still only a dream being hatched in a US military installation. Fifty years on, you don’t have to be a Marxist or a Situationist to appreciate the extent to which our lives are dominated by the rhythm of spectacular media events and their rippling diffusion, and by platforms designed to make consumption and transactional relationships, even at the most intimate levels, a ceaseless precondition of experience. Debord’s definition of the spectacle as “a social relation among people, mediated by images,” is a succinct and accurate definition of the Internet. His analysis of the spectacle’s relationship to the commodity is a Cassandra’s view of social-media platforms like Facebook: “The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of social life. Not only is the relation to the commodity visible but it is all one sees: the world one sees is its world.” Debord’s point can be perceived without the fancy spectacles of theory: We now live through the interface; everywhere “face time” declines and “screen time” asserts a burgeoning priority and ever-wider scope. Everyone seems to know that watching and being watched, being “followed,” is of paramount importance to the way we live now. It can make fortunes, destroy careers, suddenly and cataclysmically divulge our private lives, or assure our only access to intimacy. It can also, as JR seems to have discovered, fundamentally transform the possibilities of artistic practice.

In 2013, JR set up a photo booth near Times Square. It was the site, he pointed out, of the “Photomaton,” the first commercial photo booth in the world, which was operated on Broadway by Anatol Josepho in 1925. JR allowed random passersby to take pictures of themselves in the booth, and then helped to print and paste them across a stretch of pavement in Times Square. JR’s team also commandeered a massive billboard at the corner of Seventh Avenue and 47th Street and covered it with a mosaic of faces. Every night during the entire month of May, for three minutes before midnight, the Jumbotrons that are normally ablaze with ads were programmed to project the black-and-white faces of the crowd, turning Times Square itself into a Photomaton, a vast arcade of narcissistic delight. The spectacle at the heart of America’s visual empire was interrupted, but in a way that made it more whole. Thousands stopped to hold their phones up in awe and take a picture.