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.