The photo exhibition that wants you to steal the art off the walls

Shoot, print, steal: it’s a motto which has taken renegade photo exhibition Paper Pirates across the globe. Ahead of their first New Zealand show in four years, Don Rowe speaks to co-founder Tim Lambourne. 

Ever felt such a connection to a piece of art, saw some essential truth in a body of work, loved a photo so much, you just wanted to tear it off the wall right there and then? Stuff it up your shirt, pull down your cap and run guilt-ridden into the night? Here’s your chance, sans guilt.

Paper Pirates is the brainchild of Auckland expats Tim Lambourne and Joe Dowling, a pair of infuriatingly talented globetrotters, as likely at any one time to be surfing in Shizuoka or travelling with the Peshmerga than doing anything your dad and his dad might consider work.

The idea is simple: get a bunch of photos from professionals and hobbyists alike, put them on a wall, get an  audience sufficiently shitfaced, then let them steal whatever they like. If it’s on the wall and within reach, it’s yours free of charge. Just like the beer. Fun right?

The formula has taken them around the world and across hemispheres, with recent shows in both Tokyo and New York, meccas of photography, fashion and style.  

Now the prodigal pirates return for Paper Pirates Aotearoa, staging two New Zealand shows including one at Auckland’s Gus Fisher gallery on December 18. And you’re invited.

Will Vink @willvink

The Spinoff: How did this all kick off?

Tim Lambourne: Paper Pirates came about because we…completely stole the idea from some guy in London. I really liked the idea of printing out your own photos on shitty paper and sending them in for an exhibition. I hit them up and asked if we could do an Auckland version and they were like ‘No’, and I was like ‘Ok, um, I guess we’ll just do our own thing. Thanks for the idea.’

But it organically went in a slightly different direction. They were into curation and small exhibitions once a month or so, a dozen photographs or whatever. We kind of went one fuck-off exhibition a year with six, seven hundred photographs, and we didn’t really curate, we just put everything up. We didn’t intend to do anything like that, we didn’t intend to make it any different, it just happened naturally.

But the thing that emerged quite quickly was the democratic nature of it, the fact that you’ve got professional, amazing, critically-acclaimed photographers with photographs the same size and quality as Joe Hobby Photographer. I think it’s one of the things that people really like about it. There’s no pretense. In the art world, in art in general, there’s a lot of pretense and a lot of contention and so cutting through all that bullshit is what resonates with people.

Joe and I both did photography at university and we had a similar style. We started a blog in 2010, back when blogs were a thing. The halcyon days of blogging. Around 2012 was when we did the first Paper Pirates, we were just looking for ways to make the blog more interesting outside of just a place you go to stare at photos on a screen, which is what everything was and still is. It was just about making photography tangible again because when you study photography you’re working with prints and darkrooms and digital prints and so you feel it in hand. It’s really nice and striking and warm, and I think the smartphone, as amazing as it has been, has removed that aspect of the photography process.

Max Burgess @mxbxphoto

There’s also that communal aspect of viewing it in a room with a bunch of people all there for the same purpose, and not necessarily a bunch of art snobs.

Totally, and this is number six or seven, but for years we tried to figure out how to get this thing to make money because we put 300 people in a room and have a really good time and that on paper should be enough to somehow make some cash, and so we toyed with the idea of charging an entry fee, or asking for a donation, and we just can’t do it. Even charging for booze, we just ultimately can’t do it because there’s something really nice about putting people in a room, giving them a piece of art, getting them pissed, and not charging or demanding anything of them. I think that’s quite rare.

Brand saturation is just so invasive now that you’re always being asked to do something by brands. I think that the everyday consumer is very aware of it even if they can’t articulate it. They know they’re being sold to all the time, particularly with events. Every time we thought about monetising it or making it commercial in some way we just couldn’t do it.

Tim Lambourne. Photo: TVNZ.CO.NZ

It might not be commercially successful, but obviously there was enough of a movement there to consider taking it offshore. What was that like? You’d imagine the pinnacle of anyone’s career in art or photography would be exhibitions in New York and Tokyo.

That is pretty rad, eh? Hearing it back it’s like, shit yeah. To be honest it was just because I was living in Tokyo and we’d done three in Auckland and we felt like it was getting a little bit repetitive in that sense, in terms of location. I’m of the belief that you should try and be in the city that you want to exhibit in, because for one you’ve got to get people through the door and so if you live there you know more people.

I was living in Tokyo and I just didn’t have anything else to do so I contacted every single gallery I found on the internet, emailed them all in English because I’m a moron, and I got one reply. It was this amazing woman, this kind of eccentric, very wealthy Japanese woman, who was like ‘I think this would be a good thing for my son,’ and so she palmed off her kid who was my age, this French-Japanese guy, and so we ran it in Tokyo. She gave us her gallery to use for one night for free, and we just did that.

Once we’d done Tokyo all it took was one email to a gallery in New York, we just sent them the video. I think Tokyo still holds this really special place in people’s minds outside of Japan. As soon as you say you’ve done something in Tokyo, every other city is like ‘yeah, sure’.

Allen SW Huang

Were the photographers all Japanese?

I would say like 60/40. Maybe 60 percent local Japanese, 35 percent Kiwi, and then 5-10 percent were just like…Christ knows how these people found us or where they are. We’d get stuff from Brazil, Korea, Europe, and we just had no idea how they cotton on, but it’s pretty cool.

Do you put their names on?

We encourage people to print them out and send them in, and write their email and instagram on the back of the photo. If they’re uploaded digitally we’ll try and do it. I love the idea of someone pulling down a photo, looking at the email address, and contacting the person, and they’re in Sao Paulo or Tokyo or Poland, it’s such a cool connection. It’s almost like a penpal.

We did the first one in Grey Lynn in 2012, and our international wasn’t as big then, but we did get a roll from Japan. They were some of the stronger photos of that show. There was a photo of a small dog staring at a small cat through a window and it was a really great photo. We did the exhibition and later that night I went back to my friend Gus’ apartment and he put it up proudly on his wall. I was like fuck yeah, good score, that was one of the bangers.

Two years later I’m in Tokyo, I met up with this guy for dinner who I’d never met, a friend of a friend put us in touch. He said he’d Googled me and found I did Paper Pirates, he said he’d sent some work in and I was like…hang on, what did you send? And it was the small dog looking at the cat. I messaged Gus, ‘take a photo of your wall’, and then 20 minutes later this dude I’d never met was looking at his photo on the wall of my friends apartment on K Road.

He ended up becoming a really good friend, and I’m sure his work will be in there again this year. Establishing those connections between people who have never met and probably never would have, it’s so cool. That’s a hundred percent why we do it. You give people these little moments and these lasting memories, it’s amazing.

But we don’t discriminate. If you’ve got a photo that you like, even if you’ve never thought of putting it on a wall, that shouldn’t stop you from submitting. It’s about getting everyone to join in. Everyone has taken one or two photos they like, and it’s about getting them into one space and sharing them. If you have something floating around, it’d be awesome to see them.

Oivia Renouf @oliviarenouf

How did audience attitudes change across different cities? You get a bunch of Kiwis in a room with free piss and it goes a certain way just about every time. How did it differ in Japan and New York? What sort of people showed up?

Japan was amazing. In Auckland the shows…it takes 10-15 minutes to circle a room and see which photographs you like, and if you get there at 7 when it starts you know that there’s probably like an hour and a half until the photos come down, you don’t really have a set time, it’s just when we’re drunk enough or the booze is gone, but around maybe 8.30 people in Auckland will start waiting by the photographs that they want, and then once we say go, it’s on.

No one has ever fought, but it gets pretty real. People don’t want to miss the one spot because they’ve developed a connection with the photograph and they really want it. There’s no rule as to why you should get it as opposed to the person next to you, so people just kind of wait and send these really intense looks at anyone coming near their corner like ‘BACK OFF’.

That’s Auckland and it’s great, but in Tokyo they’d form these little committees and distribute photographs amongst the people who were waiting in those areas based on fairness and humility and all the things that make up Japanese society. It was the exact opposite. It’s the most organised thing you’ve ever seen, people meticulously pulling off the photos and distributing them around.

They still hit the beers though, right?

The piss was still gone within like half an hour. They still drink. But their method of organisation and manners and consideration…not saying Kiwis are rude, but I don’t think anyone rolls like the Japanese do.

New York was more like New Zealand, just a boozy party –  take what you can, give nothing back.

Wendy Mcawe @wendalls99

It seems like holding an exhibition like this in a foreign city is like a honeypot for cool characters. Almost a shortcut to a cool crowd.

The thing is, in Tokyo there’s 20 million people, in New York there’s maybe 10 million, there’s a lot going on. You’re up against a lot. The night that we did a show, Questlove was DJing just down the road for $5, so yeah man, there’s a lot of cool people around that will come through, and it’s that proper international city cool. You see a bit of it in Auckland, but there’s nothing like having someone rock into your venue with camo pants and a bikini top on a Saturday afternoon.

But the quality of competition is much higher, so you’re still super insecure and nervous that nobody is going to show, which is always the case. And should always be the case I think if you’re any kind of artist or creative. A lot of creative people have that anxiety that their work is shit and your event is never going to go well, and that doesn’t disappear just because you see cool people in the room.

You guys have built these incredible, international lives where you’re holding these exhibitions overseas and you’ve escaped this myopic scene. What are your thoughts on creating that sort of buzz? Taking your craft worldwide like that.

It’s amazing, and really cool, and also just really interesting to see…we know it works in Auckland, but we had a pretty good base of friends and family to support it, so with Japan and New York it was like, is this idea going to work in a completely different culture? Japan in so many ways is like the opposite of the New Zealand way, and America is like New Zealand on steroids. They’re different but will it connect with them? Will they understand it? So to see that they did and the thing that matters is great photography, that’s really cool. That feeling is great no matter where you go. And that’s the idea. That’s what we’re striving for.

What about more personally? You told me once that Joe flew from Mosul to Tokyo for the exhibition. How do you guys build these crazy creative lives?

Don’t buy a house.

That’s not really a possibility anyway.

Well, I won’t speak for Joe but I made the decision maybe five years ago that if I had any spare money I would just spend it on travel, and that hopefully along the way that would lead to opportunities or jobs that could then support that work. Kind of like a cycle. The amount of times that I’ve had to ask friends and family for money as an adult man is kind of embarrassing, so you have to be OK with being a broke idiot for a while if you want that lifestyle I think. Certainly until something that can support you comes in.

It’s that, it’s choosing travel and I guess being lucky that something like photography and writing and video you can do anywhere. It’s all well and good to say that, but obviously there are some jobs where it’s just not possible. Not everyone can just bugger off, shoot some photos and call it work, so I’m very grateful.

But it’s changing, you could probably be an accountant in Morocco these days. Couldn’t you? Why not?

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