The Case of the Peeping Photographer

Can an artist take pictures of his neighbors and then sell them without permission? You be the judge.

By Alyssa Jung
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine February 2014

you be the judgeNoma Bar for Reader’s Digest

Through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the building across the street from his, New York City photographer Arne Svenson watched his neighbors going about their daily routines—sipping coffee, reading the newspaper, napping. He saw a woman twirling her hair, illuminated by lamplight, and a dog gazing out the window at the busy street below. Svenson watched these activities with his camera, too, shooting dozens of pictures in 2012, many of which ended up in a gallery as a photo show called, you guessed it, The Neighbors.

The neighbors themselves first learned of their starring roles in Svenson’s pictures after one couple, Martha and Matthew Foster, happened upon a newspaper review of Svenson’s show, which included images of the Fosters and their children, their faces and partially clad bodies easily discernible.

Just weeks later, the Fosters sued Svenson for possession of the photos, arguing that he had violated their civil rights under New York’s Civil Rights Law, which states that a person’s name or portrait cannot 
be used for advertising or trade purposes without written consent.

The photographs from Svenson’s show were on sale in New York City and Los Angeles galleries and on a photography website for as much as $7,500 a picture. The Fosters asked the court to block Svenson from 
displaying and selling the images, asserting that they were “greatly frightened and angered” by the unwanted publicity. They maintained that they were forced to keep their shades drawn during the day.

Svenson insisted he was not a Peeping Tom with a camera. “I am not photographing the residents as identifiable individuals but as representations of humankind,” he told a reporter, arguing that his neighbors’ identities were obscured through photographic effects or framing. “I don’t photograph anything salacious or demeaning. I hope my neighbors can see the beauty in my treatment of [their images].”

Was it legal for Svenson to sell photos of the Fosters and other neighbors without permission? You be the judge.

Next: The Verdict »

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  • Your Comments

    • anonymous

      I think that while he wasn’t required to, he should have obtained permission to use the pictures of anyone involved.

    • Cynthia Michelle Hughes

      Way I see it, what this artist did was violate the property and personal rights of people in their own homes. What he did was, to me as bad as trespassing and theft. He used his camera to break into people’s homes and stole their images to sell. I know the state I am from does see things my way, but New York state likes to reward the criminal and punish the victim. Oh, and yes I see Svenson very much as a criminal.

    • gtbmel .

      I think if someone is performing at a public event then there is an expectation that photos may be taken. However, just going about your daily life there is an expectation of privacy. Yes people can look at me when I’m shopping but taking a picture crosses the line.

    • jhg6

      That family needs to put up some window coverings! I have all glass in front and in back of my house. I know that people can possibly see in. Whenever I don’t want people to see in, I shut the sheer curtains, or the opaque curtains, if it is at night. If you let people look in, it is your problem.

    • Amarna

      So this guy gets away with stalking this family, taking pictures of them partially clothed, which includes pictures of their partially clothed children and is able to continue to publicly display and sell these photos, by claiming its art! Does New York not have criminal laws prohibiting stalking, vogeur ism, invasion of privacy and pedophelia?

    • anonymous

      This photographer should be arrested, he should ask for the people’s permission first.

    • Dr. Pittman

      I think there is more crime to a person taking and posting a picture of an unsuspecting passerby without one’s approval. For the neighbors not to put coverings to their floor to ceiling windows, I think they have a inhibition to exhibitionism. While the thought of peering through such windows can be breathtaking, liberating and a great source of sunlight, these neighbor had to be cognizant of the fact that in this day of identity theft someone is always watching, thus even knowing when they are in their home or away. I would love to see the art of the the photos.