The art of peeping: photography at the limits of privacy
New York photographer Arne Svenson snapped his neighbours in their homes without permission – and has just won a court case under his First Amendment rights. Should snooping be allowed in the name of art?
theguardian.com, Monday 19 August 2013 12.02 BST
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A resident sleeps in an apartment in Tribeca, New York. Photograph: Arne Svenson (courtesy of Julie Saul Gallery)
“It’s just plain creepy!” “This guy should be arrested.” “He’s a peeping Tom with a camera”. “These people had an expectation of privacy in their own home that was invaded by the perv, I mean photographer.”
The indignation that has greeted Arne Svenson’s series of images, The Neighbors, on comment forums has been colourful and occasionally unrepeatable. The 60-year-old surreptitiously snapped residents in the glass-walled apartments opposite his own in Tribeca, New York, and, without seeking permission from his subjects, exhibited them in a nearby gallery. Using a 500mm lens, he peeked into the lives of others – like a real-life LB Jeffries from the film Rear Window – and obliterated the assumed divide between the public and the personal. Unsurprisingly, two of his neighbours sued, having spotted their children among the subjects. Yet a court ruled this month that Svenson’s actions were defensible under the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech, and that such art needs no consent to be made or sold.
Svenson says the verdict was “a great victory for the rights of all artists” and, although he remains wary of discussing the project, stresses that his motivation was only to observe the nuances of human existence. “I find the unrehearsed, unconscious aspects of life the most beautiful to photograph, as they are most open to interpretation, to a narrative,” he explains. “A dramatic moment has the single power of action, but tiny, linked moments are how we mark time on this earth – I am much more interested in recording the breath between words than I am the actual words themselves.”
Aren Svenson: Image from The Neighbors by Arne Svenson A resident holds a pair of scissors while undertaking an unknown task. Photograph: Arne Svenson (courtesy of Julie Saul Gallery)