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Tiny Miracles
Our need to believe

by DK Holland

In the case of disabilities, a greater awareness of “difference” has been explored in many ways: for instance, Temple Grandin, HBO’s award-winning film, is about the life of a person who is a “high functioning” autistic. And as her story is told, the very important and unique advances that Grandin has made in the humane slaughtering of livestock are revealed (changes only made possible by insights she's gained through her autism). On the lighter side, the satirical comedy TV series Glee about a choir made up of misfits features a lively teen and an insightful older woman both of whom have Down Syndrome as well as a girl who is obese and African American, a boy who is wheelchair-bound, a counselor with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), a student who is gay, a couple of cheerleaders who are exploring bisexuality and so on. Everyone seems to struggle with their personal “differences” on Glee while they sing and dance their hearts out. Glee is set, interestingly, not in a savvy metropolis but rather, a small politically-centrist Ohio town (AKA the middle of nowhere). The Special Olympics, which was founded and nurtured by Eunice Kennedy Shriver has helped tremendously to shift the personal and public awareness of “other” by attracting high-achieving people with differences to come to together and in doing so, confound stereotyping. E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Avatar, District 9, Alien Nation and Star Trek are all science fiction classics that explore our sameness regardless of planet of origin. Science fiction can help build empathy while exploring fantastical “what ifs” all the while reinforcing the awareness that all sentient beings share commonalities of flesh, blood, nervous system and consciousness, and that focusing on “difference” is largely a waste of time, an impediment to social progress. When something becomes irrelevant, it also becomes useless, slowly fading from our consciousness.

In fact it’s hard to recall an entertainment vehicle, no matter how pedestrian, that hasn’t been used to challenge some ethical stance: While providing the comfort of predictability we also crave catharsis, tension with a pinch of titillation, edgy with a tad of comfort. A recent survey in USA Today of 24 hours in the life of American culture, showed our influences are extremely mainstream: 21 references to television, 8 to film, 7 to popular music, 4 to radio and only 1 to fiction (The Bridges of Madison County).3 Popular entertainment gives us a safe place to explore our worst fears and greatest hopes, to give a push to the evolution of our culture. We want our entertainment to be easy on the eyes and the brain.

The visual arts play a major role in affecting change. In 2001, eighteen-year-old French graffiti artist JR witnessed his government’s brutal prejudice against youths living in the suburbs. He headed to the outskirts of Paris with his camera to capture extreme close-up portraits of these disenfranchised men, and then, in the dead of night, to illegally wheat paste their massive images in conspicuously upper-class locations around Paris. The contrast was stunning, had a huge impact, sparked dialogue and attracted press. JR says, “I realized quickly there is a lot more power in photos than graffiti.”

JR (ever anonymous to the authorities) now has the largest gallery in the world. He wheat pastes huge portraits of average citizens in political tension zones around the world—from the notorious favelas of Rio to the Israel/Palestine wall. This puts JR’s work in the middle of hot spots and spotlights. Recently, when he was awarded the TED Prize4 for his courageous actions, JR was asked if he had one wish he passionately believed could “change the world.” He answered, “Become JR. Do what I do.” This simple message was streamed worldwide from the TED stage. Inspired revolutionaries in Tunisia contacted him immediately declaring, “We want to do this!” JR replied, “Take the photos—send them to me!” One week later, he was in Tunisia with the people just after their revolution wheat pasting the photos on the public walls of Tunis. He had stopped by his Paris studio on the way to make their prints personally. He added, “It was that easy.”

The experience was electric. Tunisians, very charged up to see huge images of themselves posted in public spaces, gathered around, yelling and arguing. Suddenly they looked at JR and demanded to know, “Who are you?” He backed away assuring them he had no agenda and handing his wheat pasting tools to them. He watched eagerly as these newly freed people took control, pasting their own photos over portraits of their recently exiled dictator. This sparked further debate. The Tunisians came back the next day to find scratch marks on their photos leading to more shouting and debating amongst themselves. They had inadvertently created a teaching tool that was helping them to exercise their newfound power—democracy. JR immediately photographed the Tunisians’ portraits in context which started to appear around the world in major publications within days sparking new debates and global discussions: With the help of technology and the ted community, JR's wish was already being granted. “What you see changes who you are,” JR wisely observes.

JR, mindful of the responsibility he takes on when capturing images of people on film, builds trust with each of his subjects. It helps that he exudes honest enthusiasm, has a straight-forward, welcoming manner—both great leadership qualities. His approach is “Everything has to be their choice. It’s all about eye contact.” Ironically while his work makes people known who would otherwise remain anonymous, the more JR insists on his own anonymity the more famous he becomes. His philosophy, generosity, talent (as well as nom de plume), trademark fedora and dark glasses, five bogus Skype names all contribute to the global brand—JR. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.