Think you see a slum? Look again.

Hillside in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. All photos by J R/Agence VU

In October, the TED (Technology, Design, Entertainment) Conference — darling of bright, young hopey-changey folks –like me! (minus the young) announced that its $100,000 annual award was going, not to high-profile activists like past winners President Clinton and Bono, but to an obscure French photographer known only by his initials, J R.

Mural in Cambodia

What J R has created, in some of the worst slums in the world, are huge, riveting photographic portraits of the residents living there. The photos are printed on waterproof vinyl that also act as new roofs – and to say they are arresting is an understatement. He could also be arrested since his projects are usually unauthorized and put up surreptitiously with the help of volunteers.

The Palestinian side of an Israeli security wall in Bethlehem.

He calls himself a “photograffeur” (graffeur meaning graffiti in French) and that fits his subversive, insistent portraits that dare you to look away from the eyes, wrinkles, lips and smiles of the people we try not to see.I love these photos so much, I had to share them – even though I have no permission, since nobody knows how to get in touch with J R. But I’m hoping he’d approve, since my only wish is to share his gorgeous, whimsical, haunting work – and contribute to his next project of old people in Shanghai, being displaced as the city razes a historical district for development.When I look at this work, I imagine the people in Kibera, the favelas of Rio, and slums of Phnom Penh walking to work every day in the shadow of these portraits and feeling dignified, respected, seen. And I envision children playing under the eyes of the murals and feeling validated, important, precious.

Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya.

I love J R’s work and hope somebody can tell me how to reach him, so I can give him my “starving artist” grant of $100 to keep going. Keep seeing. Keep snapping.

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What Gives News Flash!

When Oprah talks, the world jumps!

Queen/Goddess/Uber-Giver Oprah just named Donors Choose (see post on February 9) as one of her Ultimate Favorite Things of 2010 – and gave everybody in the audience a Gift Card to make the wishes of teachers in low income schools come true!  So if I can’t find J R, this is where my $100 is going!