'Creepy Photog' Arne Svenson Speaks About His Controversial Photo Series 'The Neighbors'

New York City-based photographer Arne Svenson spent a lot of time in the news after he pointed his telephoto lens at his neighbors' windows and began photographing them for the sake of art. Understandably many of his subjects were outraged when they learned that they had been secretly photographed and put on display for Svenson's profit. The resulting lawsuits spanned two separate courts and several years, during which, Svenson had remained mostly silent.

In this video Svenson talks about what he had gone through because of his controversial photo series, "The Neighbors". There has been a slew of very opinionated coverage around Svenson's series. It even had all of us here at Fstoppers asking, "How Would You Feel Being Secretly Photographed in Your House For An Art Exhibit"? Which was ultimately, seemingly, moot after the, "Supreme Court Rules Photographing Neighbors Through Windows is Legal", despite Judge Dianne T. Renwick calling Svenson’s actions “disturbing” and “intrusive.” But because there are no real privacy laws in New York City, Svenson was sued for: taking a person's image without their knowledge, for the purpose of advertising sales, or trade. Under that statute, there is a fine art exclusion that protects Svenson and his work.

[My subjects] are performing behind a transparent scrim on a stage of their own creation with the curtain raised high. ‘The Neighbors’ don’t know they are being photographed; I carefully shoot from the shadows of my home into theirs. -Arne Svenson

As a street photographer, who has made money photographing unsuspecting people on the streets, I find myself a little torn. I understand the importance of the First Amendment and of an artist's rights, but I also believe making someone an unwilling participant of your art is wrong. Especially when taken from the privacy of one's own home and then placed in public for the whole world to see. Svenson's almost flippant (if not glib) attitude as he scoffs, and smirks his way through this video makes me feel like he has no empathy for those he has made to feel violated. Whenever asked: "Weren't you concerned that you were photographing your neighbors without their knowledge"? Svenson responds: "I can honestly tell you that it never occurred to me that there would be an issue or that there would be consequences to this action because all I could see was the beauty of the imagery... and I think this is a gift that artists have... They have a blind spot." [43:25 - 'Tuesday Evenings at The Modern' - Arne Svenson]

I've honestly gone back and forth with my opinions on this one but in the end I believe Svenson's 'blind spots' are many. At one point he even suggests that all of the attention was a class issue because he had photographed workers in the same vain (but not in their own homes) without garnering any attention. Help me out here fellow Fstoppers. What do you make of all off this? Am I being too harsh? Please comment below.

[via Feature Shoot]

Kenn Tam's picture

Been holding this damn camera in my hand since 1991.
Toronto / New York City

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My question is- would this even be an issue if he had painted the images of his neighbors? I don't think it would, so why would the medium have anything to do with the result of the end piece being a good piece of art (or not)? Although the aesthetics of the images are subjective, I find them very painterly and really cool looking. Now if he captured "private moments" and the subjects were identifiable, that would be a little creepy to me.

You make a very good point about the medium. I wonder if the action of a photograph is seen as quick and 'secretive', however a painter sitting in a window is acceptable due to the obvious presence. My wife will take pictures of people then use the photos as a basis for her paintings.

Exactly! A lot of painters do exactly that. It's strange to me that the path to get to a very similar end result is revered in one way and frowned upon in another.

I think maybe people are caught up in the act of the photography here and have lost the sense of the art of photography behind this particular project.

He'd have to take a reference photo anyway, so i'm not sure a change in the output matters.

I honestly think there is a big difference. Anyone who has had a lens pointed at them can attest to feeling that difference. Can you honestly say, in your heart of hearts, you would be totally cool with someone snapping photos of you while you were in your home?

Again, my opinions on this aren't fully formed yet. I really want to hear more from people. I do find Svenson's complete lack of understanding, empathy and arrogance towards the subject a bit off putting. I truly value art but not above all things. Namely, human curtesy, decency, understanding and respect. Hmmmm... maybe I have formed my opinions. :P

I also think the identity of the person pointing the lens comes into it. Its a stranger not a friend or relative.

Yea I'm not totally defending this guy, just raising some questions. I just find it a bit odd that the same exact "action" is being done (A guy looking into his neighbors window) and one is considered to be "ok" and another is considered to be "creepy". The end photograph could look painterly and the end painting could look photo real. I wonder if painters feel like their art form would be creepy the way photographers think their art form is creepy. Is it because we are admitting that our craft isn't as revered as painting as an art form? Have we cheapened it because anyone can go out and buy the gear to "create art?" . Playing devils advocate, if you really wanted "Privacy" wouldn't you close your blinds if they faced out toward another building? It seems like the neighbors are more ticked off that he made a profit off of them. Also, what if the photographer was well known and well liked photographer, would we give them more leeway than this guy who didn't necessarily present himself all that well? Not taking this guys side at all, I just find the controversy intriguing, which is what good art does right?

The medium has everything to do with the result. A photograph is a near perfect optical representation of reality while a painting is an artistic interpretation. A world of difference for the subjects in this case.

It totally depends. A photograph can look as much like a painting as a painting can look like a photograph.

For the most part I would agree with you, in terms of privacy I think there is a big difference here between art and photography. A photo starts with being the exact replica of what is seen by the eye and effort is spent making it into an interpretation/vision i.e. going further from reality. A painting is totally the opposite in that the artist starts with a blank canvas and needs to put effort into making it 'real', so I would say it's subject to the eye of the beholder and the amount of effort put into making it real/fiction.

It seems to me that the art and the act need to be separated. The photographs themselves are interesting in a purely aesthetic way, but the act it took to get the photographs was, in my mind, a violation. They both are intertwined, yes, but there must be consequences for what it took to get the photograph. Being a cool picture doesn't excuse the method.

If someone started a fire to get a cool picture of a house on fire, would the arson be excused because it was a neat picture?

I have cameras on the exterior of my home for security and two of them record the inside of my neighbors homes through a window thats in the cameras field of view, I didn't ask for their consent and I wouldn't take them down if they asked me to.

I live in California, houses are ten feet apart and security cameras have wide lenses. It's a camera recording the inside of someones home without their consent, apples to apples is a more accurate assessment.

Yes, I probably could point them straight down and film the top of a burglars head but faces are easier to identify so my neighbors can smile for the cameras.

The difference is public vs private space I think. On the street your in a public space. At least in USA your likeness can be recorded without permission. Photographing a neighbor through a window, in their home is a violation of privacy. It may (or may not) be great art but it is a violation of privacy. As a society we set limits and have to weigh the balance between personal rights and progress. There are similar debates in science and also public policy regarding data collection.

If he is on his own property and taking photographs of actions visible from his property isn't he still covered?

The difference I see is that he had to use a telephoto lens. It is not what he sees just looking out his window. The law I know makes anything taken of someones private property with a lens longer than a 50mm illegal because you are invading that persons privacy of their own property.

I believe the law varies from location to location. Photographic rights in public spaces is fairly universal (although not all publicly accessible spaces are legally "public"; some parks for example are private entities legally and may have photographic restrictions). Some states and localities have "peeping tom" laws that make this sort of activity illegal. Zach is probably right about focal length being a determination although I doubt that is universal.

It is funny how "Art" is used to cover unexceptable behaviour. Is it art to voilate somebodys privicy with a telephoto lens? Svenson hid in the shows of his own apparment to take the photos. So he did not want to be seen... I am sure others see the irony in this.

Another artist who uses "Art" to cover unexceptable behaviour is Richard Prince. https://fstoppers.com/business/peter-coulson-and-i-discuss-potentially-i...

he could have avoided the crap by taking the neighbours photos and then turning around and recreating the scenes he liked with actors or actresses and never let on that the material had a basis in real life. Hell he could have asked the neighbours to use their homes as the location maybe. I feel that by having actors aware of whats going on, playing a part, its genuinely unquestionably art.

He is a weird guy. I would never point my telephoto lens into someone's house. His idea of "unrecognizable" validates his insecurity. If they are photographed so that they are not recognizable then why defend your right to do it? This is just gross to me, it's an opinion that I don't feel like having sympathy for.

How can anybody defend this? There's a huge difference between if it is legal or if it is moral. It was legal to own slaves at one point. Didn't make it moral. Blanket rule.. doing things involving people without their permission is generally not awesome.

I have said it many times and I will keep saying it until I die! The problem is in the one emiting or bouncing the photons not the one recieving them!!!! Why is it ilegal for a flasher to expose himself in public and it is not illegal for the one watching it or recording it?! There's something fucked up in the logic of people fighting against the recording or photographing of something or someone in a public area or from your property. As a street photographer lover I would love there would be a law allowing us artists to do as we please with the photons that are bounced to us. One thing is to recieve the photons freely and something totally different would be to make them available to us like opening a door or moving a courtain. That shit should be illegal, but not if people is oferring it to the freaking world! Be responsable of the photons you bounce and accept the consequences of your photon polution! I know is a very high and scientific concept but it is freaking logical and correct! You dont get it because you see the subject from a macro perspective that makes no sense for us that can see things from a very specific perspective. You dont want something to be recorded? Dont fucking show it!!!

So, if I am in my home and have all blinds and doors open and decide to be naked will it be ok? What about if I decide to have sex in that situation, where everyone can see, even kids, would that be ok?
I know you will answer "Of course not it is not ok you are crazy!", and then I will respond "Then which is the FUC"%$"$% parameter!!!". I'll tell you which, that you be responsible for the photons you bounce! PERIOD!

EXACTLY!!! Why are there laws to prevent you from bouncing photons to everyone else but then you want laws to punish people that recieve the photons you bounce from your home?! Don't you get it? It's stupid! I understand this reasoning has a higher intelectual level than the common people should understand but it's imperative they understand it. Yes, you ASUME because it is your home you should get privacy in any form but that ASSUMPTION is wrong! That privacy ends when you allow it to end!

If i leave my door open for the breeze, i still may not want someone to enter or look inside.
Somtimes i sit in the garden and wish i am invisible. I am in the garden cuz it is hot in the house, and i cant stand that every one seeing will salute me.
If we go to the very basics, it cists us alot extra to keep people away off our life, which we wish and will be cheapper if they kindly staied away. Sure there are codes, like the bell at the door.
That is one side of the matter we about.
For me , i guess a side from legal measurements, that what we see belongs to us as experience. It is like ( this is what i saw , my experience, my memory ) .so can we report our own experience ?
The same when you have sex with a woman, will i be able to tell my story without that being violating her privacy, at least legally.
Back to the experience and action
You can phantasy about your teacher but it is illegal to sleep with. Even if both approved the relation, that is why things are really not much related or coherent.
Imagine u take a picture out in train station and people to u are just decoration ,till a couple get
Divorced, cuz one of them in the picture is flerting with a prttime lover.
The picture is legal but the outcome is problematic.
I guess alienship is good in some ways. Like when we take pics of white people and sgow in africa. Or the way around. We almost deal with abstract not idintities...

There is no real way to tell who is in the photos. I fail to see a way a lawsuit would be able to prevail. They could really be anybody's house. I find it funny New Yorkers are complaining about this, when they were the ones that left the blinds open. You live in a giant glass cube, what would you expect?

Im not judging the photographer, but people should be respected as a whole and be given a resonable expectation of privacy. Just because someone forgot to drawl the blinds, I dont think that makes them fair game. In my state, that photographer would have been arrested for being a peeping tom, even tho those were not his intentions. To me, it crosses a line thats to far. if your gonna do that, as crazy as it is, ask the people first. tho, he may have gotton a black eye. kind of hard to understand why there is a debate.

I find it quite strange that people live in glass buildings with the concept of transparency and open space for everyone to see and for them to see everything, and yet, they want privacy. And they view it as intrusive that they would be photographed in such buildings.

And gosh, there are so many cameras everywhere on the streets. People walking down see through the windows... Maybe I am wrong, but it seems to me that people in the US particularly can be so extremely and overly sensitive about their picture being taken when the photographer (from the few pictures I have seen in his video and on his website) has done quite a conscious effort to hide his subjects' identity ( I am sure it was not only for mystery, come on!). It may seem a funny thing to photograph your neighbours but then, it would really be intrusive, malicious and pervert if the photographer had, say, taken pictures of his neighbours when they were under the shower, undressed or when they were being intimate. That would, in my humble opinion, be a sure way to warrant a lawsuit (and it would really be right). This photographer's project is disturbing because it's a window into the life of his neighbours in their home, and people are too conscious these days because of what media does to us, because of what media puts into our brain, and he said something about the NSA's secrets being revealed. People are just afraid of how they are perceived. So it's just an amalgam of all the above mentioned that led to this scale of things, I believe.

I think it's not nice to say the photographer was being arrogant here. At least, he did not sound that way to me. In the light of things - spending a huge amount of money on lawyers and battling in court for 2 years; being vilified by the media -, he is probably more cautious (no wonder he stuck to that paper of his) but has still retained some sense of humour about this whole thing. If I were him, I'd be happy and yes, a little bit proud and relieved that I'd won such a battle for the sake of my art. And for sticking to it. And wouldn't you be happy to finally be able to talk about the beautiful project you have made and not be served court papers?

Putting aside the whole controversy, I believe this photographer did an amazing project, his light especially, was reminiscent of paintings. If laws and people's growing hypersensitivities are going to dictate everything you can photograph and what you cannot, art would just become a limited form of expression. That would create frustrated artists.

On a related, ethics, but different issue, why is it OK for a recognised photographer to take and display images of naked children but for anyone else it is called paedophilia and they end up in gaol (or jail depending on where you are brought up)? (And NO I am not into pitures of naked kids!)

For me personally there is no difference and both should be treated the same - as paedophiles.

As for the current argument, as far as I am concerned, your rights end at my fence line, or as in this case at my window pane, irrespective of what I am doing. Having said that, I should also be careful to protect my privacy.

Is there a difference between taking photos from a long distance and poking the camera over a fence? To me, where permission is not sought, both are an invasion of privacy and should be prevented and punished by law. Invade privacy in Australia and I'd suspect you'd spend time in gaol. A lot of time.