Celebrities might be used to it, but most city dwellers don’t expect unknown photographers to take photos through the windows of their homes – and then sell prints at prices upwards of $7,500. And yet that’s what New York-based photographer Arne Svenson has done with his series The Neighbors, shot with a telephoto lens into the apartments of NYC’s TriBeCa neighborhood.
When Svenson’s series went up at the Julie Saul Gallery in early May, the media had a field day, calling Svenson a “Peeping Tom artist”, voyeuristic, and an invader of privacy. At least one of Svenson’s subjects has filed a legal complaint against the photographer. Martha and Matthew Foster, parents of young children featured in two images, say they are “frightened and angered” by the “utter disregard for the their privacy and the privacy of their children.”
Svenson has since removed the photos featuring the Foster children from the exhibition, but he’s also filed a motion that argues the pictures are not illegal and are protected under “an artist’s freedom of expression under First Amendment rights.” While Svenson is no longer commenting on the situation, gallery owner Julie Saul says, “It really never occurred to me that there would any of the controversial issues surrounding the work because historically there have been lots and lots of photographers who have photographed on the street, through windows, there’s a whole history of it.”
The images certainly walk a fine line between art and privacy invasion. They’re intimate and revealing, yet diffused and obscure – the subjects are all caught in shadow, with their back to the window, behind a curtain, etc. And in living behind floor-to-ceiling glass windows, should the inhabitants expect to be seen from the outside?
“The people I photographed were not aware at the time,” Svenson told Slate. “That said, I have been committed to protecting their privacy – and stringent about not revealing their identities…New Yorkers are masters of being both the observer and the observed. We live so densely packed together that contact is inevitable – even our homes are stacked facing each other.”
Perhaps it’s the nature of the shots, and the notion that someone intentionally watched and captured these everyday moments, that’s distressing to some. As New York Times’ Kathy Ryan points out, “So the question arises, is it art when it’s a photograph of someone else, but not when it’s you or your family?” Others have pointed out that Svenson likely has many images beyond what’s featured in the exhibition, which might feature subjects who are more easily identifiable.
Of course the issues of voyeurism in art, and specifically photography, are nothing new. Today photographers are much more cognizant of obtaining model releases and photographing in public places. You only need to look at the countless examples of those arrested for photographing during protests and demonstrations (or on a celebrity’s “private” vacation, for that matter) to see the liabilities of photographing people in public.
But is there a difference when someone photographs directly into your home – a space that many of us deem private? Does calling something “art” protect it from criticism pertaining to privacy? Perhaps Svenson’s exhibition sales will reveal an answer.