Watching the Neighbours

Although I’m fairly clear about the right of photographers to photograph people in public, and to publish those pictures I do feel some unease about the work currently being shown by Arne Svenson in the Julie Saul gallery in New York, The Neighbours.

The neighbours in question don’t much like it too, and are threatening to take Svenson to court, and they may win. There was a similar controversy a few years ago, when an image in a UK portrait competition showed a person in a window of their house, taken by the photographer from the street outside. I don’t think that went to court, but probably a case against the photographer would have failed. And there has also been the work of Michelle Iverson, taken from her car deliberately parked outside likely homes; the comments on that page are generally extremely negative.

The key phrase is “a reasonable expectation of privacy“. If we are on the street or on a bus or a train or in a café window facing the street we clearly expect to be seen and have no expectation of privacy. If Svenson had restricted himself to photographing people looking out of their windows I would have no problem with his work.

But both by his choice of viewpoint – his own second floor flat in the building across the street – and the technical means used – a long telephoto lens (he refers to it as a ‘bird-watching’ lens) and carefully working “from the shadows of my home into theirs” he has penetrated into their homes in a way that would not be possible for the normal viewer on the street. Were I the judge he would lose the case.

The Photography is Not a Crime site linked above has an excellent summary of US and New York law relating to the case and concludes: “we have a reasonable expectation of privacy in our homes unless we are standing in front of a clear window where anybody walking or driving by can see us.”

It goes on to link the case with the use of surveillance by police and government, suggesting that they may not want to prosecute Svenson because they want to increasingly carry out their own surveillance using drones.

While Iverson’s black and white pictures do have an unsavoury air, Svenson’s are far more elegant, but there are a few among them that make me feel uneasy, a feeling of embarrassment at seeing something that I shouldn’t.  In real life I rather hope I would turn away rather than continue to stare, and though curiosity might get the better of me it would make me feel guilty.

7 Responses to “Watching the Neighbours”

  1. Verichrome says:

    I know that neighborhood; residences primarily are old, brick apartment buildings. This newly-built expensive skyscraper building has an all-glass facade. There’s certainly a question as to whether someone living in a glass house has an expectation of privacy if they do not use windowshades but live mere feet from other buildings where others could easily view them.

    Beyond that, looking at the photos in the exhibition it seems like this skink is overblown – nothing particularly invasive is being shown here.

    And if the photographer *saw* anything particularly private that he didn’t print or show, well, he saw no more than any of his neighbors also had the capacity to see … and it’s up to the tenants in the luxury building to close the blinds in that case.

  2. He has been careful to crop out faces, but the images are still recognisable. But I think the law is likely to say that the use of a long telephoto lens is in this case intrusive, and that what people do away from their windows – even if visible from a particular position by some other people – is private.

    In the UK we had a case a few years back where a photographer had taken pictures in a cafe. The judgement was that had the people been sitting next to the window they would have had no expectation of privacy but as they had chosen to sit at the back of the cafe they did – and the photographer lost the case on that point. Of course they could be seen by many people around, and probably even by people looking in through the window from outside, but they still had some expectation of privacy.

    I think it is a matter of striking a balance between freedom of expression and the right to privacy. I also think that this work gives photography as a whole a bad name – just read the negative comments by so many people on some of the articles – and makes it just a little more difficult for the rest of us who take pictures on the street.

  3. Verichrome says:

    “I think the law is likely to say that the use of a long telephoto lens is in this case intrusive, and that what people do away from their windows – even if visible from a particular position by some other people – is private.”

    When neighbors across the street could see just as much as this photographer did, I don’t think NYC law is as clear cut about this as you think.

  4. You’re right the law is not clear cut, but it comes down in the end to striking a balance as I said. I’ve read a few opinions on the matter by legal guys and they differ, but it is a fuzzy area. But I think in this case the fact that the photographer used a very long lens and felt he had to work from “the shadows of his home” will tell against him.

    It also depends whether the case is about taking the pictures or exhibiting them; if the former then other images taken by the photographer and uncropped versions might well become important.

    Looking at the images on the web there are a couple I feel a little uneasy about, as I said.

  5. Verichrome says:

    I don’t think I agree. Cropped or not, photographed versus shown – these things do not matter, at least in the USA, if one photographs from a public spot (or one’s own property).

    When you have a million-dollar apartment that is what the Guardian referred to the other day as a ‘showcase home with walls made of glass’ then you are either opening yourself to voyeurism (and envy), or you close the drapes.

    A couple of weeks ago the NYTimes published an article called ‘The Stratospherians’ The photographer for the piece, Piotr Redlinski, said, “In one picture I made the family’s son had a pair of binoculars and I commented on it, and the parent mentioned that almost every single apartment in the nearest tower, every one, had a telescope.”

    So this is something fairly well understood in NYC, and has been for decades: if you want a reasonable expectation of privacy it is your responsibility to ensure it, and it’s fairly perverse for people (who are not even identifiable) to wail that someone across the street can see into their open window-wall.

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