The Case of the Peeping Photographer

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

you be the judge
Noma 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 »

you be the judge
Noma Bar for Reader’s Digest

The Verdict:

Nearly three months after the Fosters sued, Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Eileen Rakower ruled that Arne Svenson’s work is art, which is considered free speech and therefore is protected by the First Amendment. “While it may make [the Fosters] cringe to think that their private lives can find their way into an art exhibit, there is no redress under the current laws of New York,” wrote Judge Rakower. The decision stated that Svenson didn’t need his neighbors’ permission to display and sell the photos of them.

Though he was not legally required to do so, Svenson removed photos 
of the Fosters from his website and agreed not to take any new pictures or print, exhibit, or publish any of the Fosters’ photos in the future.

In September 2013, the Fosters filed an appeal with the Appellate Division of the Manhattan Supreme Court. The case is pending.

Was justice served? Give us your opinion in the comments.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest