Richard Parker was riding his bicycle down Valencia Street last Friday evening when something caught his eye. He circled back to get a good look at a wall between 23rd and 24th streets that had been plastered with 40 black and white poster-sized photographs of people’s faces. Expressions ranged from serious to silly, and skin tones from light to dark.
“I look at these faces and I see that we are all different,”said Parker, who spent his lunch break getting his own three-foot-by-five-foot portrait taken and plastered to a wall on Minna Street between Mission and Howard streets. “We are all from somewhere else.”
Parker was one of hundreds of people to participate in the San Francisco stop of Inside Out 11M, a public art initiative that aims to raise awareness of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. By capturing portraits of people in mobile photobooths and creating giant mosaics across the country of faces that include those of immigrants and descendants of immigrants, the project has become a visually powerful way to talk about immigration.
“We’re all human and celebrate the possibilities of humanity,” Parker said, wearing the bike helmet he was photographed in downtown. “Why can’t we be sharing that?”
Inside Out 11M is part of the Inside Out Project, a global platform that gives people the opportunity to support ideas and share experiences by getting their pictures taken and pasted for free in public spaces. Created by French artist JR in March of 2011 as his TED Prize project that he said “has the potential to change the world,” Inside Out has attracted more than 150,000 participants from more than 100 countries. It has addressed issues across the world that include education, homophobia and violence.
“It’s magic in there,” said Inside Out Project Coordinator Rhea Keller, as she pointed to the photobooth truck parked on 5th Street at Minna on Friday. The truck, which previously made stops in Sacramento and Oakland has created four walls in San Francisco. It contains a seat behind a black curtain and in front of a camera, a processor that develops and prints the photos on thin white sheets of paper and a slot on the side that ejects them in less than a minute.
“Our goal is to take as many pictures as possible, and really get the word out about their (11M) project,” said Keller, who helped receive the photos from the slot and carefully roll and hand them to participants. The photos were then carried to Minna Street, where a line of people waited to have their portraits pasted to the side of the 5M Project, a four-acre mixed-used development project that shares the building with the San Francisco Chronicle. “And I imagine their goal is to get as many faces as they can that are in support of immigration reform.”
Inside Out is comprised of a five-person team based out of New York City, but, as Keller put it, “We get a lot of help everywhere in terms of volunteers.” Although JR is not present at every installation, Keller said he checks in frequently. “It’s kind of like his baby,” she said of the project.
Public art provides an inexhaustible supply of opportunities, said Alex Michel, director of the 5M Project, which teamed up with Inside Out for the installation. His eyes were full of excitement as he talked about walls around the world being used as big, open public canvases. “It’s pretty amazing that JR has been able to mobilize it.”
Alfonso Hinojosa, a restaurant worker from Mexico City, has been undocumented in the United States for 20 years. He visited Inside Out 11M on Minna Street because, after feeling for years that he’s “been in the shadows in this country,” he thought it was an opportunity that might lead to immigration reform. “It’s a way to raise your voice with the images,” he said, as he proudly posed with his photo.
Jing Bentley, a college student who lives in the city’s Richmond District, stood in line with her cousin, Christina Atienza, to get her portrait pasted on the wall. The team worked quickly from scaffolding, dipping large paintbrushes into buckets of a wallpaper-paste-and-water concoction and plastering photos one-by-one to create four long rows of faces. People waiting patiently in line with Bentley described their portraits as “your standard smiling yearbook photo,” and commented on the portraits other people were holding: “It looks like you just got a dozen donuts.”
“It definitely shows that without immigration, we wouldn’t have this diversity in our city,” Bentley said of the project, as she looked at the photos that had already been pasted.“When people talk immigration, it’s about, ‘Let’s close down the borders,’” she said. “They don’t recognize the people behind it.”
Jean Franco, who lives in the Mission District, said that many people in San Francisco are behind it. Arriving to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1993, she studied race and gender in film, theatre and television at U.C. Berkeley. For the Inside Out event, she dressed as Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. “I do this for special occasions,” she said of her colorful skirts and the flowers that adorned her hair. “And what better way to channel someone iconic who is international?”
Franco said that the Inside Out 11M project is amazing because it uses art as a political statement. “We are all citizens of this world,” she said. “Not just citizens of a specific country.”
Drawing national attention to the issue of immigration is something that Sarah Anthony, Inside Out project coordinator, agreed can be accomplished creatively. “We’re not policy makers,” she said, in between mixing batches of glue. “We’re creators. It’s more about starting conversations.”
The conversations are the best part, said David Herron, a volunteer who participated in the Oakland Inside Out project, met and was inspired by JR there and asked how he could help out. “One of the most beautiful parts about it is seeing people come together who wouldn’t normally be together,” Herron said. “And talk about what it means for them.”
Ray Ysaguirre, 50, said he met three San Francisco natives like himself while waiting in line to get his photo taken. “We chopped it up about the diversity of the Mission and the good old days there,” he said on Saturday, when he was back on Minna Street taking photos of the project. Ysaguirre doesn’t live in the city anymore, but he said he loves where he was born and raised. “My heart’s still in the Mission,” he said.
The installation, Ysaguirre said, made his week. A crack addict for years, he was once homeless and did not have the chance to contribute to positive projects like Inside Out. “It’s the small things like this that I appreciate,” he said, admiring the wall where his photo was pasted. “It’s uplifting.”
Most of the more than 200 photos that were taken were pasted to the wall in a spot that does not receive direct sunlight. “It will be interesting to see how long they stay, and their de-evolution,” said Laurie Manuel, who stood in line for more than an hour and a half to witness the gluing process. “It’s in a wonderful protected area, so we could be famous for years.”
Parker said that supporting immigration by being part of Inside Out 11M was a once in a lifetime moment. “My philosophy,” he said, “is live every once in a lifetime moment that you can.”
The moment for Bentley became a way to represent and celebrate her family arriving and living in the U.S. “It’s just one of those things,” she said on Minna Street, her portrait tucked under her arm. “My father’s Mexican and my mother’s Filipino. If neither of them had emigrated, I wouldn’t be here.”
Nearly 60,000 portraits have been printed and pasted around the world. See some of the other Inside Out installations here. A feature documentary titled, “Inside Out, the People’s Art Project,” premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Watch a trailer for the film here. Inside Out 11M heads to L.A. next. Keep track of their stops here.