JR's 'TEHACHAPI' Goes Behind-the-Scenes of His Monumental Collective Portrait of Incarcerated Men in California

JR's 'TEHACHAPI' Goes Behind-the-Scenes of His Monumental Collective Portrait of Incarcerated Men in California

“Can art change the world?” is the fundamental question at the core of French photographer and street artist JR’s global practice. From a participatory public artwork in protest of Iran’s restrictions on women to a giant collective portrait of more than 1,000 New Yorkers, his work takes on architectonic proportions and emerges on the facades of iconic buildings, container ships, and even the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

A new documentary takes us inside the imposing confines of California Correctional Institution, a supermax state prison in Tehachapi, which sits about 100 miles north of Los Angeles. Supermax facilities are specially designed to house people who have demonstrated violent behavior in lower-security prisons or require extra protective custody, often including those on death row. Ultra-fortified and sprawling, CCI is also known simply as Tehachapi, housing more than 2,600 men—20 percent more than its capacity as of January 2023.

In the trailer for the forthcoming film, TEHACHAPI, the artist documents his visit to the prison in October 2019, where he embarked on a participatory portrait project with the help of more than two dozen residents. Through this project, JR listened to their personal stories and captured striking black-and-white portraits, taken from above to show light cascading down onto their faces. The group then collectively installed their portraits in a monumental mural on the ground of the prison yard.

Through a range of interviews with men who have been in the correctional system since they were teenagers, those whose sentences are expiring soon, and those who will likely never leave prison, JR illuminates how the justice system perpetuates a sense that the inmates are less than human through the brutal conditions of confinement. He proposes that expression and art can indeed make an enormous difference, both on a personal level and in communities. One participant poignantly reflects that “I was treated like a person, not an inmate.”

TEHACHAPI is scheduled for cinematic release across France on June 12. Find more on JR’s website and Instagram.

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