By, Jamia Wilson
On an unseasonably chilly Monday evening in Manhattan, hundreds stood in line in Times Square for up to two hours. As a city-dweller for seven years, I’ve seen queues this long for big Broadway openings or on New Year’s Eve. But this line was formed for a very different purpose — for people to have their faces and stories featured in what JR describes as “the biggest art gallery in the world.”
It’s been three years since TED Prize winner JR made the wish to turn the world INSIDE OUT with a global collaborative art project. As a documentary about the project premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last weekend, JR decided to use his time in New York productively. He hatched the plan to park a truck with a photobooth on-board in the middle of Times Square, as he’s done in other cities before. As soon as I heard about this project, I knew that I wanted to be one of the volunteers for the truck’s inaugural night in my hometown.
When I arrived in Duffy Square (the northern triangle of Times Square), stunning rows of freshly pasted black and white portraits covered the ground. Smiling, smirking and winking visages of passersbys — with homes as diverse as the Bronx and Tokyo — replaced the usual bareness of the concrete. Throughout my shift, elders, painters, skateboarders, toddlers and even NYC’s infamous Naked Cowboy posed for INSIDE OUT’s camera, adding their photos to the street-side quilt of images that breathed life and humanity into the street.
As an INSIDE OUT volunteer, I learned how to capture and distribute large-scale portraits and make and apply wheat-paste. Over and over again, commuters interrupted their busy and purposeful strides and stopped to behold “the people’s art project.” Since I was adorned in INSIDE OUT’s trademark black and white spotted t-shirt, I was repeatedly asked about the origins of the project, how people could get involved, and how much it would cost to buy the portraits. Almost everyone eagerly jumped in line after learning that they could participate by giving their time, image and elbow-grease to help paste pictures.
Placing the faces of strangers side-by-side in a collective masterpiece created a powerful sense of community. People marveled at the process of taking their pictures in the speckled black and white photobooth and watched in awe as their likeness printed from the side of the truck. I spoke to one man who was so addicted to the practice of snapping and pasting his photo, that he has followed JR’s installation to three cities around the world, including Tokyo and New York.
As I walked away from Times Square, I thought of the thousands of people who have contributed 120,000 portraits to city walls, streets and countless other surfaces from Tunisia to South Dakota. I wondered if volunteers in the each of the 110 countries INSIDE OUT has touched experienced what I did. Did they see giggling children who were shorter than the portraits of their likeness dance blissfully with images of themselves? Did they witness a bride and groom take photos in their wedding finery and paste their pictures next to each other to symbolize their bond? Or, did they see what I repeatedly witnessed, a sense of recognition, pride and purpose in the eyes of folks who were given a moment to be truly seen – with big, bold, authentic, and honest emotion.
“The people’s art project” gave New Yorkers a chance to choose to remain anonymous while also being visible. By providing us with an opportunity to pause and be present together, INSIDE OUT created a humbling a sense of intimacy in the most populous city in the United States.
Help INSIDE OUT transform the city! If you live in New York City or will be visiting between now and May 10, email firstname.lastname@example.org to volunteer by yourself or with a group.