by Evan Chapman, 14 August 2012
I love books. They’re so functional. There are books to entertain and books to quicken a train journey. Some of the world’s most dependable insomnia cures come not in a capsule, but in print. Occasionally, however, there comes a book that deserves your undivided attention. Women Are Heroes, a collection of images from ‘urban artivist’ and winner of last year’s TED prize, JR, is one text that warrants a thorough bulldozing of your table – and your brain – before you get stuck into it.
Apart from the fact that the sheer size of this volume makes it impossible to just pop into your bag to be whipped out on a work break, Women Are Heroes also bears the weight of dozens of women whose stories would be extraordinary if they weren’t so commonplace in parts of the world including Sierra Leone, Sudan, Cambodia and Brazil.
JR started his first major project in Paris where he took images of young people from Parisian housing projects and illegally posted gargantuan portraits in bourgeois neighbourhoods. That was no fun, however, since the City of Paris liked and even encouraged the idea. The Women Are Heroes project is far more ambitious in terms of location, scale and the challenges of bringing to light generations of brutality and hardship faced by women in several countries where governments are less than open to discussion about such stories. Thanks to the contributions of the team of over 100, the visages of these women have been posted (with an admirable disregard for local laws) in colossal scale and sometimes great numbers on the sides of buildings, on stairs, trucks and trains in all of these countries. If you’ve ever seen a hillside favela from a freeway in Brazil, you can imagine the impact of a sea of female faces, many times larger than the sponsored billboards on the same route, staring down at you with wild eyes.
Given the ravages of time and weather, and the tendency of authorities to want to remove art that is confrontational even in the absence of words, Women Are Heroes serves as an important record of the international project. It is a photographic journal which takes the reader location by location to show the spectacular presentations and bring us the horrific and often inspiring stories behind each of the faces. Don’t try to read it all at once, unless you have shares in Kleenex. Do, however, give it a browse in your local book shop and give consideration to a purchase – maybe for yourself or perhaps someone who would appreciate it.
The book is folio-sized (no less would suit, really), several hundred pages and priced in way that seems almost unfairly cheap given the enormity of the undertaking to produce it. So, turn the TV off, close those social media pages and open up to some of the most moving, heartwarming and often shocking stories you’re likely to come across this side of Christmas, perhaps beyond.