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 published 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 »

  • Your Comments

    • Inga Dovre

      i think he coyld have asked him if could with out them exactly knowing what he was doin. like, ” what would you do if someone took a series of pictures of you and then poste and sold them

    • Inga Dovre

      I like how even though he didn’t have to, he took his pictures down in the end

    • Teacher

      W H – Yes it was illegal to do that because you must have permission to take the photo.
      L C – Yes because he is invading peoples privacy and he didnt ask them first.
      M B – No because if the paparazzi doesnt have to ask permission, then why should regular people.
      S B – Yes because it shouldnt be allowed because they may not want their picture taken without their permission.
      S B – I think it is okay to take pictures as long as they dont show their faces and who they are….
      W – Yes because if they are creepers/stalkers they might do something to them.
      M L – Yes because it is not right to take their picture without permission.
      C J – Yes that is invading peoples privacy.
      H C – No because it is interrupting their privacy.
      R B – Yes because he should ask them before even if they blur the picture doesnt mean there isnt no name and you can find famailies somewhere to take picture of.
      A D – Yes because it was putting them in danger because you can still make out who the famalies are even though the faces are blurred.
      L C – N to the O because it is their privacy because they could be taking a shower or something crazy.
      R R – No he should not be able to take pictures of neighbors and he has no permission and he is selling them for mollaa $$$$$
      D J – Yes because they might mad.

    • BisbeeBlue

      In the late sixties I was visiting a cousin-in-law in NYC! He lived in a 36 story apartment bldg and his “sport” was to “peep” thru the un-obstructed windows of the surrounding apartment bldgs with a telescope! This said any “professional” photographer or artist is bound by ethics and good common sense to obtain releases! The papaRATzzi, that are protected by the freedom of the press should also take an ethics pill as should the yellow “journals” that publish same! Then there is the voyeur mentality that purchases said “journals.” Objective press is becoming less & less. I better get down before my soap box collapses present company excepted!

    • ohionative

      While in your own home you have some right to privacy. If he took the pictures while these people were out in public some place that would be different. I think the ruling should be in favor of the Fosters. Even if faces are obscured, in your own home you should not have to worry about being photographed. It is the same as a peeping tom.

    • Liz

      He should of let his neighbors know, he took pictures of them for his job. The verdict was not reasonable, but good thing he took the fosters pictures out from his website. I hope he wont do the mistake again. If he was in a park and taking pictures of random pictures, then it would not be a problem (in my opinion).

    • Sonatina

      My take is that since “their faces and partially clad bodies” were “easily discernible” in the news review, and as the photos “were on sale in New York City and Los Angeles galleries and on a photography website for as much as $7,500 a picture,” that the Fosters’ civil rights were indeed violated and they should not only win the case but receive monetary compensation.

    • Mike

      Also I might add the judge should be looking at the business code of ethics to see if there are anything there the photographer is violating instead of is it art. One law that is violated is trespassing. A person can throw a rock through a window of a business or a private home from the street can be charged for trespassing. The same with a camera. There has been some celebrities managed to do this against photographers taking pictures of them and their families from the street, a public place, into the home, which is a private place, of the celebrity and found the photographer guilty of trespassing. So the judge should be looking at business code of ethics along with the idea pictures are art.

    • Mike

      This would be a business ethic question. The photographer made monetary gains by selling pictures of people without their consent. Is this good business ethic for the photographer or would it have been better to at least to have their release signatures in order to sell the pictures? Business ethics and the law do intertwine with each other so that a business will be transparent on how they conduct business. It is like a manufacture making batteries and coercing suppliers to sell their batteries only to cut out competition which is not good business ethics and it is also against the law.

    • Mari

      I would be totally creeped out by a neighbor taking pictures of me and my family through my window. One’s home is the last bastion of personal privacy, and to be secretly invaded as were the Fosters and their neighbors is unacceptable to me. My person and my image are mine, not some voyeur’s. If I am walking on a public street and someone is taking crowd pictures, certainly I have no case for privacy. But in my own home, with uncombed hair in my jammies going for an early morning glass of water, and worrying that I will be on public display? Absolutely not. If I were in such a compromising situation, I would probably affix one way sheeting on my windows and be careful to open them a small amount top and bottom for ventilation on nice days.
      It is outrageous that the judge found for the peeping tom.