New York photographer defends right to shoot people secretly in their apartments

New York photographer defends his right to capture unaware neighbours through their apartment windows using a telephoto lens

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 June, 2013, 3:25am

Space-starved New Yorkers might know better than to expect privacy in their glass-and-steel residential boxes. Yet, even by Manhattan standards, an exhibit by a photographer who used a zoom lens to secretly photograph his neighbours napping and eating has caused a citywide stir - and two legal actions, so far.

Photographer Arne Svenson says he started the project after inheriting a telephoto lens from a friend. He began taking pictures of the apartments opposite his own Tribeca home in 2012.

Those images are now on show - and for sale at prices of up to US$7,500 per photo - at a Chelsea gallery, where they prompted a legal complaint from Martha and Matthew Foster, parents of the young children featured in two of his photographs.

The Fosters said the pictures raised concerns about the safety of their children as well as fears that they "must keep their shades drawn at all hours of the day in order to avoid telephoto photography by a neighbour."

In the latest development, Svenson is fighting back. On Wednesday, his attorney filed a motion calling for the New York county court to throw out the Fosters' complaint. The motion argues that the pictures are not illegal and are protected under an artist's freedom of expression under First Amendment rights.

Svenson is no longer commenting on the controversy, but says in his exhibition notes: "For my subjects, there is no question of privacy: The neighbours don't know they are being photographed; I carefully shoot from the shadows of my home into theirs."

The photographs themselves are both abstract and specific, capturing mundane but intimate moments of domestic modern life. All are carefully framed to avoid revealing the full faces of their subjects.

A woman in a raincoat stands by the window, her face obscured by a twisted gold curtain. A man in a T-shirt and jeans dozes on a sofa. An expectant mother is pictured in profile. The lower halves of a couple in bath robes are caught breakfasting, their feet touching under the table. Another woman is crouched near the window, scrubbing the floor or picking something off the ground.

The controversy is similar to one in Hong Kong earlier this year when angry residents of an apartment complex in Sai Ying Pun claimed Hong Kong-based German photographer Michael Wolf may have invaded their privacy by taking pictures of people in their homes with a telephoto lens without their approval.

In New York, the Fosters' complaint about Svenson details the couple's distress about two photos that feature their children. One image shows Martha Foster holding her two-year-old son, with her four-year-old daughter standing beside her. The girl is in a swimsuit; the boy is wearing a diaper. The document alleges that the minors' faces are "clearly recognisable," which could endanger their safety by attracting the attention of "undesirable and potentially dangerous people".

The plaintiffs say they are "frightened and angered" by the "utter disregard for their privacy and the privacy of their children" and the "seclusion and solitude of their homes".

Although Svenson removed the pictures from the exhibition when contacted by an attorney, the Fosters still want to remove all remaining pictures from the photographer's possession, a permanent injunction against further photographic intrusions, plus damages and costs.

Svenson's legal motion of June 5 asserts that neither his conduct nor photographs violate any New York laws.