Photographer Faces Backlash for Voyeuristic Images of Strangers' Text Communications

Telephoto lenses are arguably the most powerful and versatile tool in a photographer's bag. These sophisticated glass instruments make it possible to photograph wildlife, war, and natural disasters from a (relatively) safe distance. But like other powerful technological tools, a zoom lens can be used for questionable or unethical purposes, including voyeurism or other invasions of privacy.

Jeff Mermelstein is a successful photographer who created his own special niche, one that has produced lots of interest and admiration. But it has also produced criticism, including the Twitter comment noted in a recent article on his recent work: “shockingly irresponsible.”

Mermelstein's most recent project involves capturing of unsuspecting subjects' phone screens and exhibiting the sometimes highly personal, shocking, or even humorous communications. One can only assume that many of these shots were photographed from a safe distance with a telephoto lens and a high-resolution sensor. However, the angle of view seen in this project's photographs points to an "over-the-shoulder" style, which might actually be possible if done discreetly under the blanket of noise and bustle of New York City.

Image by the author, not Mermelstein. For Mermelstein's work, see the link in the paragraph above.

To Shoot or Not to Shoot?

The improved resolution provided by more powerful camera sensors raises some concerns for those of us photographers and videographers who use them. How do we balance privacy rights and our professional responsibilities? Just because Americans are legally allowed to snap a photo anywhere in public, does it mean we always should?

The answer to such a question is not easy. In fact, some of the most lauded and important photographs ever shot might have been considered invasive, despite earning recognition and even awards for their creators.

Mermelstein clearly doesn't see his project as troublesome. He stands by his work and is quoted saying: "We humans are extraordinarily diverse; however, at the same time, there is some kind of continuity that ties us together in this moment of madness in our history.” And to credit him, the images are zoomed in or cropped so tightly that practically no recognizable features of the subjects are included. In my opinion, this project is at worst an invasion of privacy and at best a curious peek into modern people's personal lives.

Making the most of advancements in photography technology gives you improved access to people and places. But that access requires other advancements in our own application of professional responsibility and in consideration of others.

Do you view voyeuristic art projects as worthy endeavors or attempts to stir up attention and fame? Please share your reactions in the comments section below.

Lead image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

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Ivan Lantsov's picture

Not text in public get scren cover to protect

Just me's picture

Just go back few years where people use pen and paper.

Because nowadays, people are throwing at you their life, TV shows and personal communication right in your face, everywhere.

What do they expect?
Me to turn off my eyes and go to hide?

I'm glad a photographer capture this, it's shows how careless many are with their intimacy when using digital media.

Deleted Account's picture

Scott, if you're going to write an article with accusations, don't assume. You should have spent more time researching to provide facts instead of assumptions.

In your first paragraph, you set up the premise of the telephoto lens. Then continued with an assumption that didn't need to occur had you spent less than five minutes doing some research:

"One can only assume that many of these shots were photographed from a safe distance with a telephoto lens and a high-resolution sensor."

No. Mermelstein doesn't use a telephoto lens with a high-resolution sensor. He uses an iPhone.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Mermelstein: Here are the most bizarre messages in the world! I’ve intruded your privacy to do that!

Google: Hold my beer...

Richard Richard's picture

I doubt Mermelstein was using a telephoto lens as he uses film Leicas. His Sidewalk book is the best street photography book I own. But this is morally questionable, like much street photography.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Like everything is morally questionable, if you ask enough people...

Alex Herbert's picture

Just because you CAN see it, doesn't mean you should be photographing and sharing it with the world. I find this kind of gross.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

I find gross adding kicker light to the portraits. I understand that people can do it, but it doesn’t mean people should share it with the world.

Alex Herbert's picture

'I find gross' bad English.. But I don't chime in with irrelevant posts on unrelated subjects ;)

Alexander Petrenko's picture


I find it gross when people don’t even care to learn basic Ukrainian. But I would never mention that in this discussion. Never-ever.

Alex Herbert's picture

Exactly, it would be as irrelevant and out of place as your comment about kicker lights :)

Deleted Account's picture

All of these photos were shot with an iPhone.

jim hughes's picture

Just a side note, but we're assuming these aren't setups with models and cooked-up, spicy text measages. Because that would be pretty easy.

James Bennett's picture

On the subject of expectation of privacy in public places, there is of course none here in the USA. There are morally questionable scenarios, like taking photos of kids in a park without their parents consent or knowledge. Is it legal, yes, but is it moral? Depends on who you ask. Personally I think it's wrong, and even though its legal , you just might get your ass kicked.

On the subject if it's ok to capture text messages in public places, again, from a strictly legal standpoint it is legal as far as I know, but I bet if it went to court, there may be a precedent set that it's not. People do not expect that their texts are public domain just because they are in public.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Peeping and in your face street photography always bring me back to wonder about the mental stability of those who practice it. It sure is an instantaneous way to get self gratification if you can't succeed otherwise.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Not so long time ago being gay was treated as mental illness - extreme case of mental instability.

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Thanks for the low class bait. All yours to keep.

Ryan Conover's picture

"Photographer Faces backlash..." = let me see if I can create some backlash. When you have to go to an anonymous twitter comment to find the backlash, you haven't got much.

Wolfgang Post's picture

Not sure about other countries, but do that stunt in Germany and you are likely violating the constitution. Privacy of telecommunication is stated there. Challenging values by using art is all fine with me, but to challenge the law it needs something better.
Besides the legal aspect, is there any country or culture where peeping toms are welcome?

Ryan Conover's picture

I would assume it follows the laws regarding street photography in the US and would therefore be completely legal. You have no reasonable expectation of privacy in a public space per the law. "Peeping Tom" refers to someone looking into the windows of a private residence from outside. It's definitely rude, but it isn't illegal.