“If you ask yourself if art can change the world, I will say yes with confidence. It changed my world.”

These words, spoken by an incarcerated man in California’s Tehachapi prison, give meaning to JR’s work as an artist.

In his film Tehachapi, the artist traces his prison collage project from the genesis of the idea to its completion, highlighting the journeys of the diverse participants.

Sensitive to social issues, JR creates collages in public places, such as streets, to raise awareness about certain problems. In this particular case, he aimed at opening the general public to the problem of prison, for want of a solution.

His project “The Yard” at Tehachapi was simple: photograph each of the 33 participating detainees from above to create the illusion of a hole in which they would be, and paste this image in the prison yard. Simple in appearance, yet with many beneficial impacts: besides drawing the world’s attention on incarcerated people, and, by correlation, on the issue of detention and the treatment of prisoners, creating this work allowed individuals, erased from society, to finally be seen and considered. By allowing each person to tell their story using the “JR murals” app, the artist humanises the incarcerated: “I was treated like a person and not an inanimate!”, testifies one of these individuals in the documentary. “This project made us alive again”.

By choosing Tehachapi prison, a maximum-security facility where gang wars prevail, and which makes headlines for dark stories, JR decides to see the people behind the prisoners, and this is felt in his film. The laughter, conversations, meals shared between the artist, the incarcerated, and the prison guards put their supposed danger into perspective in a state where, until 2012, three minor offences led to life imprisonment.

With this project, JR gives prisoners back the humanity that prison has taken from them: at Tehachapi, solitary confinement is not actually a cell, but a cage, in the open air. One of the project’s participants spent 14 years in one of these cages, battered by California winds, in the middle of the desert: “For 14 years the only human contact I had was to be cuffed up. It’s a little dehumanising”. This dehumanisation of prisoners can also be felt in the testimony of one man: “You treat us like normal people… it’s been a long time”. 

Through art, JR has helped to reinstate dialogue in Tehachapi prison. Thirty-three men of all backgrounds, held in the highest security level of one of California’s most dangerous prisons, worked together on an artistic project that allowed them to show their faces and their stories to the world. An exchange was organised between a man, whose son was killed by stray bullet during a gang confrontation, and the inmates. Despite his grief, the father declared, “I see you as great men”. Dialogue plays a crucial role in this film: JR himself says, referring to an inmate who had a swastika tattooed on his cheek: “When I saw him with the swastika, I got scared. But then we talked”. This person, Kevin, is now a free individual. He has had his tattoo removed and was present in France in early June 2024 with JR, to testify at the previews across the country.

Of course, as JR says in his film Tehachapi, “Peace is not established with the snap of a finger” but this work and this film have made a major contribution, as witnessed by the 11 people freed since the project, and the 15 others transferred to lower security levels.

This documentary film is of crucial importance today. With “The Yard”, JR has signed a true message of hope and confidence, as one of the project’s participants sings: “God sent JR to pick up the pieces of our broken hearts […] he gives us hope again”. There are films that change the way we look at things, and this is one of them.

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