Are These Photos Art or Privacy Invasion?

Are These Photos Art or Privacy Invasion?

Photo by Arne Svenson

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.”

Photo by Arne Svenson

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.”

Photo by Arne Svenson

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.

Photo by Arne Svenson

Photo by Arne Svenson

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.

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There are 10 comments for this article
  1. Valentino Antonio at 11:05 am

    The fact is that the person being photographed would know it is them in the photo. . . since their face is obscured by whatever means, it is not a question for us to decide on privacy issues, but on what the actual person feels, and putting ourselves in their place, as you alluded to. The whole question would become moot, if these people were to be asked for permission to publish the images, after they have been taken in secret! Why else would we be talking about privacy, then!? It should be a common courtesy, and the, and it would not diminish the ‘artistic’ nature of the series in any way.

    We would only be left the decide if these are truly art for art’s sake. . . or simply images of people doing everyday things in their everyday lives, and there is no “art” to be had. If you want to make some art, then try secretly photographing families in the worst places of this world, and you would get some better credit for it. Sometimes, art is not all it’s cracked up to be. . . . not as sincere, or is watered down/diluted art.

  2. stefani at 11:24 am

    Photographing children like that should just be a no no. Not least they may actually be fostered/adopted kids which anyone involved with that process should know, photos made public are a definate NO. End of.

  3. olidie at 1:32 pm

    I have absolutely no problems with these pictures, not matter if they show adults or children. Nobody except for the photographed themselves (and close ones) will know the identity of the people. The pictures are in no way offensive or tasteless. I believe that unfortunately some or even a lot westeners, even photographers, seem to have a different conception of privacy if their world is concerned than to the exotic of a third world country or a war area. It’s okay to snap a picture of the cute local boy playing on the beach but here it’s a absolute no-go. Come on.

    The me these pictures are art. Period!

  4. Micheal at 1:51 pm

    People are the most beautiful when they don’t have the weight of the camera upon them. This however is creepy. Street photography is one thing. All kinds of things happen in the open. In the privacy on one’s home one expects privacy. It’s not a matter of being legal, it’s a matter of being ethical.

  5. Ryan Coleman at 2:16 pm

    Valentino – obscuring or not they have their blinds open. Legally speaking this is not an invasion of privacy. But the person might think it is.

    If they don’t want that to happen then they can do two things: Buy the rights to the photo (expensive, very expensive) or pull their shades/blinds/curtains. Amazing how easily that is done.

    If I can see you from outside there is no expectation of privacy.

  6. Frank Illes at 4:21 am

    Would the issue of privacy come up if these were pencil sketches or water colors, instead of photographs? Same subjects in the same compositions doing the same activities.

  7. Valentino at 8:43 am

    @Ryan Coleman

    If someone is trying to take pictures of you in your home with a zoom lens, because the curtain is open a few feet wide, etc., you are not going to look outside and wave. You are going to go outside and confront this person and ask what they are doing and what do they want. Never mind “legally speaking” . . . . The law is a piece of paper, and the camera is digital and the photographer is using your being to make a profit, and if the subject does not want the photos published, then they have to pay for the “expensive” rights to them. Thank god that, “legally speaking,” the law favors one side more than the other, it seems in your argument.

    The person is in the home, and should also be afforded the same right that a father has in a park when someone is taking pictures of their children playing. Should it be NOT “legally speaking” when someone uses voyeurism to photograph you inside your home, when the photographer could be anybody, or anybody could pose as a photographer. The law is not balanced, and should not favor photographers and lend rights to peer into people’s homes like that.

    If the photographer has a legal right to take those photos of you in your own home, without your knowing, then there should be an equality to the law that says that this same photographer has to notify you and ask for permission to publish, etc. Make the law fair, where curtains failed.

    As for it being art, it’s all nothing more than a crop of s**t, when it comes to certain art. I took a look at a museum’s website and found a “photo of the day” being a small stick with a mushroom growing on it, that was placed in some coffee jar. The image was even some 30 degrees off level, because it was from some-handheld-I’m-an-artist type, probably.

  8. Marita at 11:46 pm

    Even without the existence of facial recognition software, it’s completely irresponsible for the photographer to add anyone’s face without permission, especially children’s faces.

  9. David Roddis at 5:21 am

    Is it “art”? I’m not really the boy who knows, but in our time art is primarily an idea or concept, especially with photography which has traditionally been viewed as “artless.”

    Art as concept aims to provoke a reaction and to involve the viewer in the completion of the art work. Whether or not you appreciate “a small stick with a mushroom growing on it” presented – oh horror of horrors! – “30 degrees off level” (must remember to use my spirit level next time) is irrelevant. This kind of commentary is nothing more than a variant of the “my five-year-old could do that” reaction of the bewildered middle-brow viewing a Jackson Pollack for the first (and last) time. One could argue that all photography is just luck and technique, with very little artistic talent involved.

    Is it ethical? Well, Americans are very fond of their First Amendment freedom of expression “rights,” but usually fail to acknowledge that there is no such thing as total freedom in any area. Your right to expression does not trump everyone else’s rights, and may I also point out that the First Amendment was created in order to ensure that government should not be immune to criticism. It was not intended to created a free-for-all of privacy invasion or hate speech, or slander or… etc.

    I think this is a work of conceptual art. Sleazy, self-serving, lazy, entitled, unnecessary, outrageously invasive and cliché. But art, without question.

    I challenge the artist to spend a month with his blinds up and to live his life, after giving his neighbours DSLR’s and zoom lenses. Now THAT would be an interesting project, and I think we could all support that. But don’t hide behind your “rights” as you violate every unspoken standard of civility and community. My admiration will always go to the person who doesn’t do that thing he has every right do to.

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