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

    • mj10

      It scares me that there are people out there doing this kind of stuff. It scares me even more to know that there are judges out there condoning it!

    • Monika Woods

      No one even knows the “Fosters” and in 5 years, most likely no one will care. In 100 years they, and this story will be long forgotten.

    • Monika Woods

      This article condemned the photographer with a biased headline. I do not consider him a peeping tom. I live in a private place for a reason. If I get undressed I don’t do it in front of my windows, even though the only way to photograph me would be from a zoom lens, and they would have to physically trespass on my private property.

    • Monika Woods

      I don’t think he needs to ask. If they don’t want people to see them, they should not leave their windows open. It’s life, anyone at any time could be taking pictures.Who walks in front of a window undressed anyway unless they are just that ignorant? Free speech and art. There names are not attached.

    • csj

      Despite what he says, Svenson is indeed “a Peeping Tom with a camera” and what’s worse, he is profiting from it. He claims he obscured his neighbors’ identities, but the article says “…images of the Fosters and their children, their faces and partially clad bodies easily discernible…” Judge Rakower was wrong to excuse this blatant invasion of privacy as “art”, and I wonder if she’d see it the same way if her and her children’s partially clad bodies were unknowingly photographed and put on display for profit. We’re in an age now where our right to privacy is being seriously invaded, from Google Maps and Gmail scanning our email, to other myriad ways we’re tapped by the government and tracked by advertisers…now we’re supposed to accept this, too? As “art”? No way.

      The people (victims) have wall-sized windows with the intention of enjoying the view, not so others can enjoy viewing them (much less photographing and selling their image).. But if they want privacy in a fish bowl, it would be reasonable of them to install mirrored film or some such window treatment that would allow them to see out without being seen. I have no idea how feasible it is to get that done in an apartment building…maybe a meeting with all the residents and management could get it started…

      The point is that nobody should have the right to take unauthorized pictures of anyone, much less in their own dwelling, and even less so for profit. The appellate court should kabosh Judge Rakower’s ruling and order Svenson to pay his victims the profit he made off of them.

    • adell

      When you are home, it’s a place of security and safety – a place where strangers are not allowed to bother you, unless you allow it. No one should be allowed to take photos without your permission, especially when there are children involved and the photos include “partially clad” subjects! Maybe they should hire a photographer to take pictures of him and members of HIS family when they think no one is looking – I bet he wouldn’t like it either.

    • Rachel Duvall

      As an artist, I’m disgusted by this. He needs to take a break from his art and consider what it has turned him into: a stalker. Which really is what he did. To gather enough useable photos for this gallery, he had to have watched and photographed them regularly for at least a week or more. Essentially, he stalked his neighbors and then posted the evidence of his crime.

      If I were the judge, I would have taken that into account. Because all he’s done now is set the precedent that if I call it art, I can stalk my neighbors and post the photos in a gallery. As long as I claim it’s art, I can harass someone as much as I want. Because it’s art and free speech. Be proud of yourself, Judge. You just created a giant loophole for sexual predators everywhere.

    • Ray

      Art is for everyone, not everyone wants to be Art!!

      This guy is profiting as a Peeping Tom!!! Disgraceful. Obviously our Judges can’t judge for themselves anymore. He broke the law and is making money off other peoples images without consent.

      I want to have a choice if I want to be part of an Art exhibit or not.

      What happen to Civil Liberties!!!

    • Debbie

      A person has a right to privacy in their home. Just because they didn’t have their curtains closed didn’t give Svenson the right to take their pictures without their permission. Why isn’t anyone calling it like it is….Svenson is a peeping tom and that is illegal! He should be sued and I sure wouldn’t call this free speech!

    • MK Hyatt

      While I believe the photographer was lacking in common sense and sensitivity, I despise people who knee jerk sue in retaliation; what is worse are people who look for opportunities to use righteous indignation or “emotional distress” as an income source, seeking any opportunity to obtain money through lawsuits. Settling disputes face to face in a reasonable manner is what adults do. Anything else is boorish, immature, & adolescent.