Residents angry at 'rear window' photographer

Inhabitants of a Sai Ying Pun apartment block say German artist Michael Wolf's voyeuristic - and telephoto - images violate their privacy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 February, 2013, 8:36am

Angry residents of an apartment complex claim a well-known photographer may have invaded their privacy - taking pictures of people in their homes with a telephoto lens - without their approval.

"If I see the photos on a gallery wall, I'll rip them down," said resident Clinton Mack, 33. "I don't care if he's some renowned artist. He can't profit from anyone's image without their consent."

"If I see the photos on a gallery wall, I'll rip them down. I don't care if he's some renowned artist. He can't profit from anyone's image without their consent

The latest project by award-winning German photographer Michael Wolf, titled "Window Watching", has raised legal concerns that it violates the privacy of people in Hong Kong.

The photos, taken through windows, capture moments such as a woman helping a child with homework, a girl lying on her bed talking on the phone and a man doing push-ups in his living room. In a few of the sample photographs, which Wolf published on his website, the subjects' faces are visible. In others, they are blurred or obscured.

Each of the more than two dozen residents who spoke to the South China Morning Post, and two security guards, have identified the apartments in the website photos as their building in Sai Ying Pun. A spokesman for the building's management office, however, said they could not identify the building from the photos.

Wolf, an internationally exhibited photographer who lives in Hong Kong, has told the South China Morning Post that the series is not yet complete, and that he plans to publish a book featuring the photographs. He refused to respond to questions about legal concerns and complaints from residents.

"It's a horrible thing he did," said Dai Bo, 33. "Now that I know there's some man taking photos of people in my building, I'll keep my curtains closed all the time and avoid going on my balcony."

"The children in the photographs could have been my kids," said another resident, Stephen Chou, 48. "I would definitely consider filing a complaint."

But lawyers and privacy experts say that if the residents cannot identify themselves in any of the photographs, they would probably not be able to take legal action against Wolf.

Barrister Robert Tibbo said: "[Seeking] recourse through the courts for breach of confidence may be possible, but that's something the very wealthy are better positioned to do. The most practical way would be for those who have identified themselves in the photographs to file a complaint with the Privacy Commissioner."

A spokeswoman for the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data (PCPD) said failure to comply with the data-protection principle under the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance "does not constitute a criminal offence directly". But if someone contravenes the ordinance then fails to follow an enforcement notice, they can face criminal prosecution, a fine up to HK$50,000 and two years' imprisonment.

The number of complaints made to the PCPD has increased in recent years, from 1,001 complaints in 2009 to 1,213 in 2012.