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‘If I can change, why can’t they?’: Artist JR talks ‘Tehachapi’ – his American prison project

In his new documentary ‘Tehachapi’, French street artist JR reveals the behind-the-scenes of a four-year-long project with inmates of an American prison.


French artist JR has a documentary out in French cinemas, and in it, we are invited to witness the hopes and regrets of the inmates of the maximum security prison based in Tehachapi, California.

Tehachapi walks us through a series of projects organised by JR, an artist whose work combines photography, collage and video.

With its behind-the-scenes approach, the documentary relates how the austere prison courtyard becomes an ephemeral canvas for the inmates.

JR’s team collaborated with inmates and guards to use its signature technique of flyposting to create a giant portrait of 40 men. The artist was the first surprised to be able to conduct a project that extensive in such an environment. 

“I went after three days of getting the permit, I went in there thinking, let’s do it very quickly before they remove that permit. And then once that permit kept on going, I kept on coming back. And for the last three and a half years, we’ve been coming back and we’re going to continue to go back,” he tells Euronews Culture.

‘Sowing seeds’ of hope and change

Among the people who took part in the project is Kevin Walsh, who spent 14 years of his life in prison, an environment with its own rules and a microcosm where segregation between different gangs is still ongoing. Now, Kevin follows JR to share his experience.

“What it did do is it sowed seeds. And so, I believe that the impact that it had on the participants of the initial project was observed by the entire population,” he says.

The shift was especially visible in the interactions between inmates and the prison officers. In “one of the most impactful moments”, Kevin describes how a guard spoke to his mom as she was visiting him shortly after one of the projects. “He began speaking to my mom as if I wasn’t even at the table and he just was explaining that himself and many of the guards were very proud of what I was doing and the change that was developing”.

JR’s series of projects in Tehachapi started in 2019. In between these projects, inmates were moved to lower security levels, trying for parole or getting their gang tattoos covered. Kevin’s long-term goal has been to remove a swastika from his cheek. It was one of the first things he did when he got out of prison in 2021.

He is now working in the community and trying to help other inmates. He even went back to work in Tehachapi, this time in a black jumpsuit – the standard outfit for JR’s crew members.

“I think this project taught me a lot, but I think the thing that got me by surprise is the question of change: Can we change? Can someone change? And if I can change, why can’t they? It’s something that I had never really thought about before. And that hit me being there, inside the prison,” JR says.

JR and Kevin received much applause and praise during their exchange with the French public, with a lot of members already familiar with the artist’s work thanks to his previous collaboration with the late director Agnès Varda. 

“The exchange session was great,” a member of the audience, who is also a photographer, tells Euronews Culture. 

“It was moving for us to see Kevin arrive without his swastika, to see the work that’s been done, to see that it’s something that dates back to before the pandemic, that it was really a big project. And then JR is just… He was adorable, and he responded so well,” she adds.

“It gives you hope, it gives you faith in humanity. And once again, it shows that empathy and compassion can really save lives. And art too, of course.”

Tehachapi hits French cinemas on 12 June. Click on the banner video to see extracts from our interview with JR.

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