Photography & Private Spaces

“One of the risks of appearing in public is the likelihood of being photographed.”  – Diane Arbus

Photo by Arne Svenson

Earlier this year New York City-based Photographer Arne Svenson shared his exhibit The Neighbors at the Julie Saul Gallery in New York. The exhibit featured photographs of people, in private moments, in their homes high above city streets, shot with a telephoto lens from a neighboring building.

In the age of Social Media privacy has taken a significant leap forward in public discourse. Secrets have become public and the contents of private lives have become comment fodder for our “friends” & “connections”. Thus it is easy to be confused where the line is drawn, especially so as the boundary of privacy is ever moving.  It may be easy to identify Svenson’s work as consistent with current trends given what we see and read in our social media feeds. But I see a difference, and it is significant.

This difference is about choice. We choose which parts of our lives to share with our friends and connections, Svenson has removed that power from his subjects. Some, including his gallery representation, position his work consistent with the canon of street photography. I disagree. While I am not 100% certain that Cartier-Bresson never shot with a 500mm lens, I would find it extremely unlikely. At street level, a relationship is created in the instant of capture, whether or not the subject is fully aware of the photographer. In every photograph taken at street level there is either implicit permission or there is risk of confrontation and among the many skills of street photographers and photojournalists, this risk assessment is ever present when photographing strangers.

Photographers, street, editorial or other are well aware, or should be, of the reasonable expectation of privacy. This tenant makes a clear distinction between public and private property, between what is visible from a public sidewalk and what is hidden. In our homes, and out of public view, we possess this reasonable expectation. If, however, we choose to wander about in our birthday suits in public view we forfeit this expectation. In this distinction we acknowledge a personal responsibility for our privacy. Where Svenson and The Neighbors fall short is in how his photos were made of one private space from another. While it may be a semantic distinction, I would believe, living on the 20th floor of my building that I possessed this reasonable expectation because I was out of public view. Further, one simply does not expect to be photographed in their home from afar, especially given the constant of cameras, in one form or another, at street level. For the sake of example, shopping malls are private property, and in strictly legal terms, a photographer requires specific permission from either the property management or of the store management if shooting in a store. This is something I have first hand experience with.

Svenson has since won legal suits brought against him by subjects who felt their privacy was compromised by the photographer. Svenson sees this as a clear victory of artist’s rights and the freedom of speech, and in this I see the value of his work. It is the confrontation of free speech and the rights of privacy. I don’t think Svenson’s photos are particularly salacious or demeaning, but neither do I think they are particularly interesting or possess much in the way of aesthetic value. His photos are boring, they are uninteresting in themselves, but rather fascinating in the context of this confrontation between free speech and the right to privacy.

Consider the challenges faced by Google regarding Google Street View. All over the world privacy issues have come up for debate with what constitutes privacy and what gets captured in these images. Across the European Union challenges have been levied, reversed and relevied. In one instance which led to a ban since reversed, authorities in the Czech Republic described the photos produced by Street View cameras as “beyond the ordinary extent of sight from the street” and that it “disproportionately invades citizens’ privacy.”  In another case, while the award was nominal, a Baltimore Judge ruled Google Street View an intentional trespasser and awarded the plaintiff $1 in compensation.

This is all rather academic. I am not a fan Svenson’s work. I don’t think it rates among the guardians of street photography. I believe that he hides himself from the act of permission behind a 500mm lens. His work suggests someone with an extreme social anxiety disorder, incapable of interacting with others. While this in itself is perfectly reasonable, he insists on exploiting other people and their privacy in his work. When, sometime in the future, we turn to celebrate those who fought for the right of free speech his name, and work, will be long forgotten. In reading about Svenson and The Neighbors I came across a quote in the Guardian from another photographer who produced a similar work. In it he expressed unease at being an unaware subject of someone else’s photographs. Photographer Micheal Wolf says “I’m not sure how comfortable I would feel if I knew someone would come into my room while I was sleeping and take my picture. I think, spontaneously, I wouldn’t feel comfortable.”

Though it was months ago, I recall my first impressions on seeing work from The Neighbors, I thought of how horrified I might be had I walked into that gallery and saw an image of myself in my home, shot without my knowledge or consent, and now on display and for sale. I also wonder what Arne Svenson’s reaction might have been while looking through that long glass and discovering someone was looking back at him.

More here:

Photoshelter Bog, Are These Photos Art or Privacy Invasion? By Lauren Margolis

Arne Svenson

The Guardian Photography Blog – The Art of Peeping: Photography at the Limits of Privacy

I’d love to read your comments.

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