PHOTOS: Guerrilla Art Project Captures Japan's Northeast in Portraits

In November 2012, a truck departed from the northeast Japanese city of Kesennuma on a journey to Fukushima. Its sides were pasted over with pictures of a giant eye, and at the back of the truck was an opening like a mailbox slot. The truck was equipped with a camera to take people's photos and a large-format printer to print them out.

The truck was part of French artist JR‘s “Inside Out” project, an art concept based on public participation. The artist's project is centered on taking photos of people on the street in different parts of the world and then pasting their portraits on the sides of buildings. The project is a global platform for people to share their untold stories and transform messages of personal identity into works of public art.

Photographs of about 400 people were collected from Japan's northeastern Tohoku region, which still bears the scars of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami which killed nearly 16,000 people and devastated the area. A selection of these photographs were then put on exhibition.


Photo of the truck travelling through the rain on its way to Tohoku.

Two merchants from Kesennuma's fish market.。

Two merchants from Kesennuma's fish market

Posters put on display in Kesennuma's shopping district

Posters put on display in Kesennuma's shopping district

People check out portraits coming out of the truck.

People check out portraits coming out of the truck.

A woman behind the track in apron

People gather around the truck and begin mingling

JR's exhibition at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, which is located in Tokyo's Shibuya district, started in February, 2013 and runs until June 2, 2013. While JR's Inside Out Project was unfolding in Tohoku, the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art put out a call for financial support[ja] for the project through Campfire[ja], a Japanese crowd-funding site.This call for support met with a favorable response, reaching the museum's two million yen (about 19,600 United States dollars) goal during the fundraising period.

Campfire is one of Japan's leading crowdfunding sites [ja]. In 2012, it raised [ja] about 92 million yen (about 903,000 US dollars), with one particular project netting a record-setting 5.3 million yen (about 52,000 US dollars). Compare this with well-known US crowdfunding site Kickstarter, which successfully raised one million dollars for 17 different projects and collected pledges totaling about 320 million dollars in 2012.

Despite the relatively small size of Japan crowdfunding market, the fact that Campfire was able to overcome such challenges and reach its goal is telling. The Watari Museum is now working once again with Campfire [ja] to raise funds aimed at nationwide expansion. [Update: The fundraising project was closed by May 10, 2013]

In addition to the Tohoku photo project, the museum is also presenting other “Inside Out” projects by JR in chronological order. There is even an area where people visiting the exhibition, which is called “Could Art Change the World?”, can have their photographs taken. Giving people the chance to have their portraits taken at the museum is a way of getting them involved in the “Inside Out” project.

JR discussed the idea behind the project during an interview with online news publication Blouin Artinfo:

[…] Although I helped with the construction and logistics, it’s important for me that the local people manage the truck, the photo booth, and all the operations themselves. It’s meant to be a project by the Japanese, for the Japanese. […]

On Twitter, user TAKEI Toshifumi (@toshify) discussed his impression of the exhibition in a tweet:


@toshify: I went to see JR's “Could Art Change the World?” exhibition (being held at the Watari Museum until June 2).
JR is a French artist who draws attention to social issues by taking photos of people's faces and then posting them on the street. While there is the belief that a person's face is something private, putting someone's face on display to the public can be used to convey a powerful message. The artist's language is also beautiful.

Pictures of Tohoku area project participants posted on the wall of the Watari Museum Portraits of participants in the Tohoku project.

Pictures of Tohoku area project participants posted on the wall of the Watari Museum.

Reaction to the participation aspect of the project have been varied:

@Hiro183: JR展(13回目位)@ワタリウム美術館。なんでこんなに来るかって?

@Hiro183: Visiting JR's exhibition at the Watari Museum again (this makes it my 13th visit). Why did I come to this kind of event? Because I am participating in the event through my financial contributions to Campfire. Art has a meaning only after we participate in it.

@hiswii: やっぱワタリウムのJR展、行って撮るだけで参加したって言いづらいよなー。

@hiswii : I find it hard to say that I actually participated in JR's exhibitionat the Watari Museum just by going there and having my picture taken. JR's lack of embodiment should carry over to the project as a whole.

More images of the Tohoku project are available here. Shots of the exhibition at the Watari Museum can be seen here.

All photographs appearing in this article were published by the Watari Museum [ja]. Published in accordance with Campfire's intellectual properties guidelines in Japanese, which allow Campfire members to repost the image/text of materials appeared on the campaign page to their blogs.

1 comment

Join the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.