Photographer Jean-Baptiste Pellerin’s been putting the unexpected back into our daily commute with his guerilla galleries of portraits for almost a decade. Since he started, he’s stuck more than 4,000 portraits up in the streets of Paris to Tokyo, some of which you can now check out at his first indoor exhibition at bookshop Artazart until 23rd June.
Words: Rooksana Hossenally
During lockdown, the only people I had for company during my daily walks were those in 15 little glass frames neatly lined up on a wall of my neighbourhood in the 17th district. The portraits were taken in the streets all over the world from Paris to India. And while the people in them ranged widely, from sartorial connoisseurs to café waitors, they all had one thing in common: their smiles. And smiles is photographer Jean-Baptiste Pellerin’s main currency.
His portraits exude an infectious joy. So much so that people who stop to peer at his portrait galleries in the street come away smiling. “A smile is contagious,” Jean-Baptiste says. “I smile at the subjects, they smile back, and it’s that exchange, it’s that moment, that I capture.”
Standing in the empty streets for my hour-long stroll before slipping back into the safety of home, I stood in front of each portrait, making the most of my newfound time to scrutinise every detail. The folds of shimmery saris, the shape of afro hair-dos, unusual instruments, couples in matching outfits harping back to a time I never lived… I don’t know how long I stood there for, soaking up the joie de vivre in each face or outfit.
In his 20 by 10-centimetre portraits, Jean-Baptiste not only invites us to look up from our phones and at each other again, but he also immortalises the uniqueness of each individual, encouraging us to question how we are expressing our individuality – and whether we are actually expressing it at all, or masking it to fit in with a collective anonymous.
“Contrary to when I first started out, when I would take candid shots of people without them being aware, my work is now, and has been for the last five or six years, a collaboration with the subject. Whenever I see someone who stands out to me, because of something they are wearing, their hairstyle, the contrast of their outfit with the wall behind them, or just their smile, I ask if I can take their portrait,” says the photographer. “And behind every photo is an encounter, a short story that gives me great emotion each time.”
Asking people if he could take their photo was a huge turning point for Jean-Baptiste who had always battled with shyness. It came following a series of portraits he took of people living in a makeshift immigrant camp at La Chapelle metro station in northern Paris. “I realised how a real encounter, that trust you create, can change your photography. Some people (I took photos of) would even go and put on their best outfits just so I could take their portrait – they were really proud in the fact that someone took an interest; I love how how happy it made them feel.”
When you look closely, his shots which look spontaneous are actually quite technical. The poses of his subjects are akin to those in portraits of notables before the medium became a standalone art, as well as the way he highlights their best side without judgement. “Every person is someone – not a label. And maybe my portraits somehow help to show a different facet of certain types of people that usually come with a stereotype like a police person – showing their friendlier, more human side opens the mind about who they are behind the uniform,” says Jean-Baptiste. “Maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to judge one another if we learned to look at and listen to each another more instead of walking around our eyes glues to our screens.”
Born and bred in Paris, Jean-Baptiste was never particularly seduced by street art as a medium. But he’s been interested in street photography for as long as he can remember, with Doisneau and Brassaï being some of his models. Also, coming from a family of artists, he was always sensitive to aesthetics. “I build my shots with people but the portraits are also a combination of colour, lighting and setting.”
Jean-Baptiste’s epiphany actually came when he saw Banksy’s film Exit through the giftshop and when he took an interest in Invader’s work. “That’s when I thought of putting my photos in frames – I had previously tried to paste them up, but the rain washed them all away. When I saw Invader’s mosaics, that’s when I thought of cementing them to the walls.”
Another aspect that attracted Jean-Baptiste to the streets, as opposed to the galleries for which he was formally trained as an advertising photographer (which is his day job), was the sheer freedom of expression and accessibility.
“You can do what you like in the streets,” he says. “You stick your pictures up at night, and then in the day you get to see how they take on their own lives when people stumble upon them on their way to work. I love that.”
However, with the freedom comes a downside. “It’s not always easy to muster up the courage to approach people you don’t know. I get a lot of knock-backs on some days. Sometimes people don’t even respond. It can take a few minutes or even hours to get back out there.” But Jean-Baptiste has grown pretty resilient to being shooed away and ignored. “It’s a very peculiar sort of relationship you develop with the street and strangers when you’re a street photographer.”
When I asked the artist whether or not he ever tires of putting himself out there and taking people’s portraits, he tells me that it’s something he’s often wondered about. “I know that the desire to take people’s portraits will at some point wane, but for now, I don’t know what it is that keeps me going, but I’m not fed up of it at all.”
He remains fascinated with the energy and emotion of each encounter, especially in Paris, London and New York, the cities here he draws his greatest inspiration thanks to the diversity of the inhabitants.
“There are so many wonderful people to meet. Many are open-minded, warm and looking to exchange a few words. I keep them in mind and forget the others,” he says. “You know, I’ve never been much of an optimist, so when I meet these people, it gives me a lot of hope.”
See Jean-Baptiste’s street portraits, which you can also snap up for 60 euros a piece, at Artazart until 23rd June. They are also scattered all over Paris, as well as Arles, Marseille, Lyon, Toulouse, and further afield in New York, London, Lisbon, Tokyo, and several places in India. Check out his work: @backtothestreetphoto.