Steal My Photographs

As an act of self-promotion, I mounted the world’s shortest photo exhibit and invited people to make off with my art

It is not, nor has it ever been, sufficient just to be talented in order to be an artist. In order to be successful in doing what you love, you need to be a businessman.

The majority of content creators live in over-saturated media landscapes and that is a huge problem for professional photographers. Whether we like it or not, we are contributing to the noise. Currently, the supply of images far outweighs demand. Newcomers in the business shoot for free to “get exposure” and this results in bringing down the assumed value of photography across the professional field.

In a media-rich environment, be it physical or virtual, the issue has always been filtering. The Internet has not yet found an ideal solution for people to be served exactly what they need and desire. And so, photographers cannot assume their work is even going to reach its best (buying) audience, once it sets sail on the vast ocean of images online.

As an artist and a photographer this is the reality I face. There is little point in being romantic about it. Self-promotion is an art form in itself. I am by no means a Gary Vaynerchuk type-of-guy but I try my best to engagingly self-promote because I believe that challenging your own ego and leaning into your fears always helps. The world won’t see you if you’re not waving. It doesn’t matter if you succeed in self-marketing on the first try or not. The point is that you do it.

I didn’t want to bore or spam people with my self-promotion so I tried to conjure something that would be different and fun. Most importantly, it had to be something that people could take part in and gain something from.

Hey Guys, Steal My Art

Some call it “The World’s Shortest Photo Exhibition” but I call it Steal My Photograph! (SMP). It’s a travelling, interactive exhibition where I literally encourage an audience to steal my framed photographs in a public environment. The SMP tour kicked off in the Danish capital Copenhagen.

SMP marked my first attempt at breaking through the attention barrier. To my amazement the art thieves nabbed all of the art in 30 seconds! We filmed the whole thing. As a marketing strategy, it was nothing if not fresh. This got me press! I also shared conversations with the participants and the dialogue continued to simmer on social media.

A selection of submitted stories and photos by the art thieves.

“With the agreement that the thieves would then take a picture of where they displayed the art and e-mail it back to Lukas, the artist could trace his photos to their new homes in Denmark, Germany, Sweden, Norway, and the USA,” wrote 2GoCopenhagen. “Since then, SMP has been an event in Barcelona, London, Cape Town, and Helsinki — the capital city of Renlund’s native Finland.”

Now, am I money-wise better off after SMP? Not in the short term, but likely so in the longer term. Giving away my photographs for free is not a zero-sum game; others’ material gain (of my art) doesn’t come at the direct and proportional expense of my finances (bank balance). I put up the costs for 4o prints and frames in exchange for goodwill, hundreds of people knowing my name, and activating a fun event.

A selection of submitted stories and photos by the art thieves.
A selection of submitted stories and photos by the art thieves.

On occasion I coordinated SMP events to coincide with local art festivals and local volunteers helped me organise more thefts. SMP showed at “Infecting The City” in Cape Town and at “The Night of The Arts” in Helsinki, both with great response. (A YouTube channel hosts videos of all these events).

In the video highlights you’ll see audience-members react to being permitted to steal art. This moment and this realisation is an emotional turn, and I think that helps the event — and my name behind it — stay in the memory. The goal to marketing is to embed in people’s memory, and I think SMP does a fine job in this department.

SMP collages: Copenhagen (left), Barcelona (middle) & London (right)

If You’re an Artist …

Think of approaches that foster a word-of-mouth effect around your art, your music or your brand. In my experience the more unconventional the approach is, the better. Also, think of how you can document it. Your intention should be to leave a trail of breadcrumbs for others to find and follow to learn more about you.

Brilliant ideas can spread like wildfire over the Internet but brilliant ideas needn’t be in service of a BIG production. Modest and memorable works just as well. What matters is that your idea is original. Sometimes you don’t have to be the biggest and best, if you are the first.

Video highlights from the Copenhagen SMP exhibit (2 min)

Document the progress and your results. Personally I prefer video, but that is not to say that other forms of media won’t work equally well. Use whatever tools and tricks work best for you. Remember, the more you are prepared to share of yourself — to put yourself on the line — the greater the likelihood that it will strike a chord with your audience.

Stay Tuned

In my next post about SMP, I’ll lift the veil on how I came up with the concept. Follow me here on Medium to catch that and if you enjoyed this post please “Recommend” below — it will help share the story with others.

I would like to thank everyone who participated in this project including the art thieves! Shout-outs to Svenska Kulturfonden (Finland) for the generous grant and to my friend Cinematographer Anders Lönnfeldt.

Lukas Renlund is a photographer based in Copenhagen, Denmark. He does his best to make it in a world where nearly everyone is a photographer. His work has hung on the walls of The Royal Academy of Arts in London and Preus Museum — the National Museum of Photography in Norway. Follow him on Instagram and Facebook