Michael Wolf photo exhibit may breach privacy law, expert warns

Intimate images by award-winning photographer about life in HK flats breaches the law, barrister says

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 January, 2013, 9:58am

Legal concerns have been raised that award-winning German photographer Michael Wolf violated the privacy of Hong Kong residents with his new series, "Window Watching", in which he used a telephoto zoom lens to photograph people through their high-rise apartment windows.

The snapshots capture intimate moments in cramped flats. They show a woman helping a child with homework, a girl lying on a bed talking on the phone, a family watching television together and a man doing push-ups in his living room. In a few of the photographs, the subjects' faces are clearly visible. In others, they are blurred or obscured by shadows and objects.

A barrister, who preferred to remain anonymous, said: "Since those photos have already been published on the internet, those people have had their privacy grievously invaded and have no practical way of getting compensation. Theoretically, they can go to court and seek damages for breach of privacy, but an average person may not have the money to commence legal proceedings."

Wolf, who has won two first-prize awards from World Press Photo and lived in Hong Kong since 1994, recently posted 16 sample images from the "Window Watching" series on his website. In the past week, websites including Shanghaiist and Trend Hunter have republished them and the images have also been uploaded onto personal blog sites and on YouTube.

Wolf told the South China Morning Post he was in the process of completing the series to exhibit and publish in a book. He refused to comment on breach of privacy concerns. He did not say whether he had received the consent of the people in the photographs to publish their images.

Wolf has sparked debate about voyeuristic photography in the past. One of his previous projects, "Transparent City", included images of people inside apartments and office buildings in Chicago. While living in Paris, he used Google Maps' "Street View" feature to gather images of people on the street.

According to a spokeswoman for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data, photography counts as "personal data" in the ordinance. It stipulates personal data "must be collected in a lawful and fair way; data subjects shall be informed of the purpose for which the data is collected and to be used".

If it is not possible for a viewer to ascertain the identities of the people in Wolf's photos, then the photos would not amount to "personal data" as defined by the ordinance.

In two recent cases, where local magazines Sudden Weekly and Face Magazine published photos of celebrities taken from inside their homes using telephoto equipment, an investigation by the privacy commissioner found the magazines were in breach of the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance, and served en forcement notices on the publications in March last year. But the privacy commissioner spokeswoman said the office would not comment on Wolf's specific case unless there was a complaint filed by a subject of his photographs or another relevant individual.

Last year, when Foam, a photography magazine, asked Wolf what he thought about "peeping" in photography, he said: "I'm not sure how comfortable I would feel if I knew someone would come into my room while I was sleeping and take my picture. I think, spontaneously, I wouldn't feel comfortable." But he added that "strong [photography] … can make me think".

Michelle Kuen Suet Fung, an internationally exhibited Hong Kong visual artist, thinks Wolf has crossed the limits of artistic freedom.

"There is a lot of interesting subtext in Wolf's photographs," she said. "A person living in a very crowded situation and a person living in a humongous house in Hong Kong will have very different reactions to his works. Does artistic merit and talent give him the right to violate people's privacy? No. I don't think artists should hurt lives to make art."

The barrister said: "Artists should be free as possible, but they don't have absolute freedom. The minute I saw those photographs, I thought, that could've been me. And someone other than me got to decide what to show in my private home."