This Photographer Creates Elaborate Sets in Public, Then Leaves Them for Passersby to Use

Until all the pieces are stolen, at least

Justin Bettman took his series "Set in the Street" to Prague for the latest installation. Justin Bettman
Headshot of Nicole Ortiz

When Justin Bettman first launched his ongoing photo project, “Set in the Street,” he wanted to create elaborate sets but didn’t want to rent an expensive studio to bring his projects to life. Plus, he reasoned, you’re really only paying for the walls and floor anyway, and those already exist outside for people to use as they see fit.

After creating his first set in Brooklyn’s artsy neighborhood Bushwick with set designer Gözde Eker, he was approached by people asking  if they could take photos on set. “A light bulb went off in my head that, for future sets, I should leave them up for passersby to take their own photos in.”

Now when he’s finished taking photos with his sets, Bettman leaves the decorated scenes for people to interact with. There’s also a sign that says #SetintheStreet so people know to tag it on Instagram.

Once Bettman has a set idea and location in mind, he’ll go through Craigslist’s free-to-take listings, browse secondhand stores or—his usual approach in New York—find furniture on the streets. “It’s incredible how much furniture is discarded every week,” he said.

From there, he’ll either work with casting companies to find actors for his sets. Or, as he did in London, he’ll ask people walking by on the street if they’re interested in participating.

Most recently, Bettman created a set in Prague, a city whose architecture and history had always intrigued him. He connected with production company Creative Embassy, who produced the shoot and secured a location.

“I always try to get an iconic juxtaposition of the exterior with the interior,” Bettman says. “The inspiration for the interior of this set was Prague’s era of the First Republic.”

He’s trying to secure partnerships in Europe and potentially in Asia for future sets. “I have learned that working closely together with the city and a local producer really elevates the project.”

Wondering what the average lifespan of a set in the street is? Well, it depends. Bettman says one of his sets in the Lower East Side of Manhattan lasted a few hours, while one in Bushwick, Brooklyn, lasted 10 days.

“Usually I know a set is done when all the items from the set have been stolen.”

In collaboration with Tribeca Film Festival, Bettman created this short video called “Prom Night” about one of the sets he created.

@neco_ornot Nicole Ortiz is a senior editor at Adweek, overseeing magazine departments such as Trending, Talent Pool, Data Points, Voice and Perspective.