The French street artist and photographer JR, rarely seen without his trademark black fedora, likes to hide behind dark sunglasses and his mysterious alias. It’s not that the 31-year-old is trying to avoid the well-known pitfalls of fame: on the contrary, JR has remained approachable despite his popularity. But he does want to work without constraints. “Right now, I can travel the world under my real name,” he says. “If people knew my name, it would be much harder for me.”
Known for pasting giant black-and-white portraits on the sides of buildings, JR has traveled the world, from the favelas of Brazil to Liberia’s shantytowns, the slums of Cambodia and the concrete jungle of New York City. Now, he’s back in Paris, where last week he unveiled a mosaic of 4,160 self-portraits he collected from people around the planet.
His canvas? The Panthéon, France’s great monument and mausoleum devoted to its cultural titans. Scores of the country’s most celebrated politicians, writers, artists and scientists — Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Voltaire, Marie Curie and others — are interred there.
“What I wanted to show with this artwork was that we, the people, have a voice and that our voice can make a difference,” JR told TIME. “Among all these people, some will become great, too.”
The result is undeniably impressive. The collage ornamenting the Panthéon’s famous dome can be seen from miles away, while thousands of faces smile up from the floor, welcoming visitors to the museum’s nave. As one literally walks across these selfies, they seem to emerge as a collective personification of France’s motto—Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.
In an interview with TIME, JR talks of how France’s 2005 riots revealed his work to the world and led him to launch Inside Out, a mass participation art project that invites people to voice what they believe by pasting their own portraits on their own walls.
Read the full interview in the June 23rd edition of TIME.
JR is a photographer and artist based in Paris and New York. Follow him on Instagram @jr.
Lauren Fleishman is a freelance photographer based in Paris.