I Spy: Photographer who secretly snapped neighbors goes to court

Sat Jun 8, 2013 7:19pm EDT
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(Reuters) - Space-starved New Yorkers might know better than to expect privacy in their glass-and-steel residential boxes. Yet, even by Manhattan standards, an exhibit by a photographer who used a zoom lens to secretly photograph his neighbors napping and eating has caused a citywide stir - and two legal actions, so far.

Photographer Arne Svenson says he 'started the project after inheriting a telephoto lens from a friend. He began taking pictures of the apartments opposite his own Tribeca home in 2012.

Those images are now on show — and for sale at prices of up to $7,500 per photo — at a Chelsea gallery, where they prompted a legal complaint from Martha and Matthew Foster, parents of the young children featured in two of his photographs.

The Fosters said the pictures raised concerns about the safety of their children as well as fears that they "must keep their shades drawn at all hours of the day in order to avoid telephoto photography by a neighbor."

For the rest of New York, the controversy over the exhibition has triggered a conversation about First Amendment rights and just how much privacy city dwellers can expect.


In the latest development, Svenson is fighting back. On Wednesday, his attorney filed a motion calling for the New York county court to throw out the Fosters' complaint. The motion argues that the pictures are not illegal and are protected under an artist's freedom of expression under First Amendment rights. Svenson is no longer commenting on the controversy, but says in his exhibition notes: "For my subjects, there is no question of privacy… The neighbors don't know they are being photographed; I carefully shoot from the shadows of my home into theirs."

The photographs themselves are both abstract and specific, capturing mundane but intimate moments of domestic modern life. All are carefully framed to avoid revealing the full faces of their subjects. A woman in a raincoat stands by the window, her face obscured by a twisted gold curtain. A man in T-shirt and jeans dozes on a sofa. An expectant mother is pictured in profile. The lower halves of a couple in bath robes are caught breakfasting, their feet touching under the table. Another woman is crouched near the window, scrubbing the floor or picking something off the ground.

The Fosters' complaint details the couple's distress about two photos that feature their children. One image shows Martha Foster holding her 2-year-old son, with her 4-year-old daughter standing beside her. The girl is in a swim suit; the boy is wearing a diaper. The document alleges that the minors' faces are "clearly recognizable," which could endanger their safety by attracting the attention of "undesirable and potentially dangerous people."   Continued...

A woman attends a photo exhibition called "The Neighbors" by fine art photographer Arne Svenson at Julie Saul Gallery in New York in this June 1, 2013 file photo. Svenson, who secretly used a zoom lens to photograph his neighbors napping and eating has caused a citywide stir -- and two legal actions so far. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/Files