Winner Of 'Ted Award' Brings Giant Photo Art To Liberated Tunisia

A project from highly touted French street artist JR lets Tunisian photographers take over the boulevards once patrolled by Ben Ali’s security forces -- and watched over by his image.

French street artist JR
French street artist JR
Pascale Krémer

A visual putsch! Who would have thought that Ben Ali's portraits in the street would one day be replaced by giant posters of the Tunisian people!

There is no denying that an artistic revolution is underway in Tunisia, just two-plus months after former President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali's departure. Six young photographers brought by Slim Zeghal and Marco Berrebi, men and women, professionals and amateurs, are imposing the "artocracy in Tunisia."

They were helped in their endeavor by a 28-year-old French artist who goes by the moniker of JR. This eccentric young man had already made a name for himself posting giant black-and-white portraits, or enormous images of eyes, in public places where you'd never imagine seeing art. JR says he has a particular interest in taking his works in troubled locations, where his "images offer another point of view than the often too simplistic one of traditional media."

He has, for example, taken portraits of the people living in the poor suburbs surrounding the French capital, and plastered them right into the heart of posh Parisian districts. He posted immense portraits of Kenyan women on the trains that cross their towns. Shabby houses in the Da Providencia favela in Rio were adorned with giant images of their proud but destitute owners. He put the faces of Palestinians and Israelis on both sides of the security fence separating enemy communities.

His impressive work was rewarded in October in the United States with the prestigious TED award (Bill Clinton and Bono are also recipients of this prize). The award came with a $100,000 check, and the possibility to realize a "wish that could change the world."

JR's wish was to launch the "InsideOut" project ( The rules of the game are simple: anyone can send their portrait of choice, JR then prints it in black and white and gives the information necessary to put it on a street wall (it's like gluing on ordinary wall-paper - a video on the website explains the homemade procedure). Fifteen days later, some 10,000 had already shown their enthusiasm for the project, with 950 groups now formed throughout the world, ready to start putting up posters.

Among those groups taking up the offer are six Tunisians who immediately started roaming the country in search of 100 models "united for democracy", be they men or women, young or old, rich or poor, Bedouins or city dwellers. Their goal was to replace former president Ben Ali's countless city portraits with faces of the Tunisian people. From March 16 to March 23, JR went to meet these Tunisian artists and lend them a hand.

"Unbelievable" reactions from the people

In Tunis and in cities such as La Goulette, La Marsa, Le Kram, in Sfax (the country's second largest city), in Sidi Bouzid, the small town where the uprising first started, monumental portraits now cover the image of the former ruler. Symbols of past oppression -- the headquarters of Ben Ali's party, the RCD, police stations burned down by the protesters -- are now guarded over by the faces of the Tunisian people.

When the artists start putting up their posters, the reactions of the people are "unbelievable," JR says. "They are so hungry to express themselves. Sometimes the entire neighborhood came to help. They would shout and clap their hands every time one of Ben Ali's portraits disappeared."

At other times, the atmosphere was so rowdy, so violent, that the team had to give up. In the capital Tunis, the posters on the Bab el-Bahr monument (also known as Porte de France) were even taken down during the night. It is because "radical Islamists hate to see portraits of women with their faces uncovered," JR thinks. "Other Tunisians told us that the government had imposed portraits on them for 20 long years, they did not want any more of them. They must have thought that our images served political purposes."

So the artists had a moment of doubt, asking themselves whether this was a bad idea after all. "But then we realized that showing one's point of view by taking down posters was something people could not have done just a few months ago. So it was great -- people were simply using their newly-won freedom!" Driven by the hope of an artistic spring, just as in post-Franco Spain, the Tunisian artists continue to cover the walls of their country with giant posters of the people. And the people will decide how long they'll stay.

Photo - Jurveston

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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