It might be art, but does that make it O.K.?

That’s the lead-in question raised in a New York Times article about photographer Arne Svenson’s new series Neighbors, which is on display in a Chelsea gallery. Svenson, who is probably best known for his still life photographs, came into possession of a 500mm lens. He didn’t buy it; according to reports, he ‘inherited’ the lens — whether from a friend who died or in some other way, it’s not clear. What is clear is that Svenson somehow ended up with a lens that’s great for wildlife and sports photography, but not particularly useful for still lifes.

So he did what I suspect any photographer would do. He put the lens on his camera and looked out the window. Since Svenson lives in an apartment in TriBeCa, it’s not surprising that when he looked out his window, he saw the apartment building across the street.

neighours #1

Neighours #1

Back in 1964 the social philosopher Abraham Kaplan posited the Law of the Instrument. He wrote: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding. This concept is sometimes referred to as Maslow’s Hammer, because a couple of years later Abraham Maslow wrote: I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

If you have a wildlife photographer’s lens, you treat everything you see through it as wildlife. And that’s sort of what Svenson did. He began to photograph his unsuspecting neighbors in the building across the street in much the same way a wildlife photographer would photograph, say, a Pileated Woodpecker. Quietly, surreptitiously, covertly. You don’t want to spook the bird; it’ll fly away. Svenson embraces this analogy.

“I am not unlike the birder, quietly waiting for hours, watching for the flutter of a hand or the movement of a curtain as an indication that there is life within.”

There’s a crucial difference between New Yorkers and woodpeckers, though. Birds don’t go to galleries in Chelsea. Birds never see their photographs hanging in a venue open to the public. Birds have a poor grasp on the concept of privacy. Birds don’t sue.

neighbors #14

Neighbors #14

Not surprisingly, some of the people Svenson photographed have brought suit against him. Martha and Matthew Foster are seeking ‘actual and exemplary damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress and an injunction to stop the dissemination of the photographs’ (emphasis added). Ms Foster and her children appear in two of Svenson’s photographs — Neighbors #6 and Neighbors #12, which are being sold for US$5000 and $7500. Ten copies of each print are apparently being offered. According to the suit,

Plaintiffs were also greatly frightened and angered by defendant’s utter disregard for their privacy and the privacy of their children. Plaintiffs now fear that they must keep their shades drawn at all hours of the day in order to avoid telephoto photography by a neighbor who happens to be a professional photographer.

It needs to be noted that this is a civil suit, not a criminal case; Svenson’s behavior may be ethically questionable, but it doesn’t appear to be illegal. But even though a civil suit has a lower standard of proof than a criminal case (generally ‘a preponderance of evidence’ or ‘clear and convincing evidence’ rather than ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’), I suspect the Fosters will have a difficult time proving Svenson intentionally inflicted emotional distress on them. Their anger and distress are almost certainly real, but that’s not enough for them to win a civil suit.

neighbors #12

Neighbors #12

So it seems Svenson did nothing criminal, and it appears unlikely he’ll be found civilly liable for his behavior. That brings us back to the ethical question raised in the Times: It might be art, but does that make Svenson’s behavior okay?

It’s really a rather silly question. I doubt many people would think using a telephoto lens to shoot surreptitious photographs of unsuspecting neighbors is okay. It’s most certainly not okay. It’s fucking rude, is what it is. Rude and more than a little creepy.

Neighbors #11

Neighbors #11

That said, I’m not convinced that ‘okay’ and ‘not okay’ are metrics that should be applied to art. I don’t think ‘rude’ or ‘creepy’ are useful yardsticks for measuring the acceptability of art. There’s good art and there’s bad art; there’s art that works and art that doesn’t. And those, of course, are entirely subjective measurements.

I’m not suggesting art trumps ethics, or that art is above ethics. Nor am I saying artists should ignore ethics. What I’m saying is that artists shouldn’t choose their subject matter based on whether it’s socially acceptable or not. They should, however, be willing to suffer whatever consequences arise from socially unacceptable art — including the occasional civil suit. In this case, as might be expected, the legal attention has brought Svenson’s work to a much wider audience and will almost certainly help his sales.

Neighbors #17

Neighbors #17

I think this is good art. I think these photographs work. I’m completely taken by the stillness, and the intimacy, and the painterly quality of the light. But at the same time, I think Svenson’s behavior in spying on his neighbors is morally reprehensible. If he’d done it to me, I’d very likely be massively pissed off. I’m glad he did it anyway.

I find myself wondering if the Fosters weren’t the subjects of the photographs and saw them — in a book, on a gallery wall, in a magazine — if they’d have appreciated them as photographs. As art. I wonder if they’d be able to look at Neighbors #6 and Neighbors #12 and, instead of seeing an appalling invasion of their own personal privacy, see them as lovely photographs depicting a happy, close-knit family. Because that’s what I see.

11 thoughts on “neighbors

  1. I too would like these images if I didn’t know how they were taken. Also, I guess I thought that private citizens had a right to privacy in their own homes. Not so?


    • The photos ARE beautiful and, I think, very sweet. But the method by which there were created is definitely creepy. And yes, people DO have a right to privacy in their own homes, but in general that right doesn’t extend to anything that can be seen through an open window.


  2. I think it would be impossible to prove he had intent to harm; to get these photos he would have had to watch very closely for a long time to get just the right images. It seems clear that he must have seen many, many more potentially embarrassing/naked/private moments (which is undoubtedly part of the outrage). But while that’s clear, he must also have deliberately chosen *not* to take or use those more embarrassing moments as part of his series. The photos are obviously taken with an aesthetic in mind, an overall mood and feel that he was trying for. They’re actually really lovely images; I like them a lot. Under the same circumstances I have to admit I’d probably have done the same thing, thew temptation might have been too great; though I would not have had the chutzpah to go and put on a gallery show with them.

    It is an invasion of their privacy, yes. But as someone who takes a fair number of portraits of people, many of them ‘sneak’ shots or candids, there’s a whole gray area there about whether it’s an invasion of privacy. I think most people feel they are fair game if they’re at a function and they see a photographer wandering around taking pictures of people (as I often do) but it’s another thing to find your neighbor is taking photos into your living space when you thought you were alone and safely private. So I understand the outrage, too.

    But they are lovely images, aren’t they? They show a surprising level of tenderness and kindness. And sometimes I think the only way you can capture such moments is when people really are completely unaware.


    • I think you’re right, Beckett. I do find the method to be rather unsavory, but I appreciate that Svenson has chosen images in which faces (for the most part) are obscured. It would be difficult to identify these people from the photos unless you knew them.

      I find myself wondering at what point he decided he was actually going to turn this into a series.


  3. Even if we could forget about the invasive nature of his “art”, he’s still using images for PROFIT without the consent of the people in them. That alone is supremely unethical. His photos are beautiful, but his behavior is disgusting. He’s a bad person, and honestly belongs in jail.


    • I’m pretty much opposed to putting people in jail unless they’ve been found gullty of committing a crime. There’s a LOT of behavior I find personally disgusting, but that’s hardly a reason to incarcerate somebody.


  4. Most of the photos of this series that I’ve seen feature fairly anonymous people. He seems to have attempted to not show people’s faces, #14 above being one of the few in which someone is recognizable, although possibly only to herself.

    I see no intent to embarrass or cause distress, and since the subjects are not, as Beckett mentioned, photographed in compromising situations, I think that the lawsuits are merely intended to milk money from Svenson. No doubt he’ll settle with them since he probably doesn’t have the cash to fight the suits, but he’ll also no doubt enjoy future benefits from all the publicity.


    • I don’t think the intent of the suit is to ‘milk money’ from Svenson. I suspect the Fosters are genuinely (and, in my opinion, rightly) pissed off about the invasion of their privacy.

      If they invested some coin in a few window treatments (instead of, say, hiring a lawyer) they’d have control over when their apartments were visible. That would undoubtedly be annoying, but it’s something almost everybody who lives in a city or a suburb has to do. If people CAN look in, they WILL look in.


  5. This might sound a bit psychotic, but I seriously wonder whether or not the Fosters (and those others bringing suit) really thought about the long term practical consequences of making a public stink if violation of privacy was indeed their main concern. Over course they have every right to feel offended and take issue with what they see as a clear violation of their privacy. That said, reality has a funny was of biting intentions in the ass. As a result of bringing suit, ironically their private lives are now more publicly exposed than had they not brought suit.
    I suppose one could say that it’s a matter of principle, but I have to go with ocaritas and say that along with the outrage the plaintiffs may honestly have felt at such a violation comes the smell of money to be had. $5000 – $7500 a print. A small percentage of the sales of those shots could go to purchasing new blinds or curtains.
    That’s not to scoff at the creepy factor. I’d be furious as well if what went on behind my windows was on public display, but the style in which the images were shot, chosen, as displayed would cause me to double think taking any legal action. I think the Times author was right in saying that in instances such as these “the freedoms enjoyed by artists and journalists are worth possible breaches of privacy.” Besides on the other side of the coin, I’d have a hard time believing a judge (civil or criminal) would bother taking seriously the argument of a peeping tom voyeur’s behavior as a form of “performance art.”


    • Part of it, I think, comes from a certain sense of privilege. People live in the Zinc buiding in Tribeca partly because it’s basically a giant cube of glass. A one bedroom apartment there rents for nearly US$6000 a month. People who pay that much money feel they ought to be able to look out at Manhattan without Manhattan looking back.


  6. I’m glad to see this discussion about the photos. When I first saw them (before even reading the article), I was in awe of their painterly, quiet beauty. Knowing later that they were taken in a voyeuristic manner takes them from beautiful to eerie for me (not that the two are mutually exclusive). I want to believe that I’d be more flattered than creeped out if my neighbor made a project out of my personal life through the curtains, but I know my first reaction would be: you’re a total weirdo, dude.


Leave a Reply to greg Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.