Artist Wins Dismissal in Suit Over Voyeuristic Photos

Remember how Arne Svenson took photos through his neighbors’ windows, raising their ire? A press release from the law firm of Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams, & Sheppard just came in:

In a victory for the First Amendment rights of artists, Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams, & Sheppard LLP client Arne Svenson prevailed in an action seeking an injunction to prevent the display and promotion of Svenson’s recent series of photographs entitled “The Neighbors.” Svenson’s photos study the tension between privacy and anonymity in an urban environment, where people live side by side and are only seen through the filter of their glass windows. One of the residents of the building sued, asserting violation of New York Right of Privacy Civil Rights Section 50/51, New York’s privacy statute that prohibits the use of one’s likeness for purposes of advertising or trade.

The Supreme Court of the State of New York granted Svenson’s motion to dismiss in its entirety, ruling for the first time that photographs are expressive works entitled to full First Amendment protection and shielded from the New York Statute. Lead counsel on the case, CDAS partner Nancy E. Wolff, said “I have always maintained that photos are entitled to First Amendment protection as expressive works, irrespective of whether they are sold.”

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  1. Awesome decision for photographers! Mr Sevenson’s works of art are very anonymous! His work gives an air of mystery and intrigue and I, for one, enjoy that about a photograph.

  2. That’s great… give me your address and I’ll wait in the building across the street and photograph you when you are doing your most private things, not tell you about it, then sell them for profit.
    This is a huge invasion of privacy, not art.

  3. It isn’t the “first time” NYS courts have decided in favor of artists rights.

  4. If you want privacy, close your curtains. Anything I can see from my property, or from public property, is fair game for a photo.

  5. @Minny1018: You can not have an expectation of privacy if you are in public view, whether you are in your own apartment or walking down the street. So yes, it is fair game, creepy, but fair game.

  6. Now if CDAS keeps people from stealing photography from facebook and the rest of the web they would be true heros.

  7. I’d just like to suggest that those who find it creepy are identifying with the subjects in the photograph. Except that onlookers who don’t know those subjects see them only as human beings, bodies in space, and as such they can detect beauty and humanity without the taint of suspicion and treachery. That’s why these images work for some people and to others they are an outrage. That’s just my opinion, but that’s why I agree with the opinion of the court. If I can see you from the street you are in my view, and that equation is fixed. I may choose to record what I see in images or writing, and I am entirely within my rights to do so. If I tell you right now that I can see the guy across the alley from where I’m sitting, in a green shirt, smoking a cigarette, and if I describe him very explicitly, am I invading his privacy or chronicling my experience in some manner? It’s hard to make a legal distinction between verbal and pictorial recording in this case.

    I cannot see anyone reading this now, but I’m completely aware that anyone reading this can now go find a wealth of information about me. We must get a grasp on what anonymity means in society in cities, online, etc., before we make claims that our privacy is being “invaded”.

  8. Middy…I agree with you. I photograph in public spaces where there are dozens and dozens of people photographing with their cell phones…and yet I’m the one who is often stopped, pushed back, and questioned. As a freelance photojournalist, my mantra has been and is…if you do it within sight of my camera and you’re in public displaying yourself for everyone to see, you’re fair game for my camera. What a camera sees through a window….the rest of the world can see as well…and yes, the world is looking. We just want to think they’re not.

  9. Telephoto lenses and other photographic enhancements make this a slippery slope–no?

  10. Perhaps it would be of some solace to the victims . . . er, subjects, if the photos weren’t incessantly reprinted on this site.

  11. The true victim here is the stuffed bear, as his face is clearly visible and identifiable. As a member of the stuffed animal species, he has no brain and therefore was not aware that he is fully visible to the outside world via floor to ceiling glass windows. Humans should know better.

    A little common sense might go a long way. A good rule to follow is that if you can see your neighbor thorough the window, then they can see you. If you don’t want your neighbor to see (or film) you, then invest in some curtains.

  12. Legal yes! Still very creepy!! If it was my wife or kids I wouldn’t have sued him, just punched him in the face a few times!!!

  13. I applaud the court for it’s ruling, but I think any photographer would tell you, shot what you can, get the image, but be sensitive to the environment and to your subject. This is where I believe Arne Svenson stepped over the line. He was neither sensitive to the intended environment [Private Space] or sensitive to the intended subjects [people who are either working or living in these private spaces]. Some years back, it was called Peeping Tom’s and if caught, you would be arrested and jailed for the offense. I just wonder how he would feel if the shoe were on the other foot..??

  14. This goes beyond creepy. He’s using their images without permission. Don’t most works like this have to have written permission of those being photographed before they are published in any way? If anyone was taking pictures of kids in the park you can bet the cops would want to talk to them but because here it is “artistic” this idiotic judge lets him off scott-free…what a joke.

  15. This is a good call by the courts. Not fun for the neighbors, but that’s what window shades are for. Still glad it’s not me…

  16. Curtains and window shades are beside the point. The point here is when you are in your home, it is your space, period..!! You expect and should get your privacy and it should be respected, period..!! The courts made the correct decision based on law and the 1st Amendment, but in regards to the morality of what Arvenson did was a case of non-sexual Voyeurism in the guise of photography/art.

  17. The use of a powerful telephoto lens is what really pushes it to creepy for me. I think there needs to be some respect for individual privacy.
    If I am changing in a locker room, which is a public space to some degree, does that make it ok for people to take photos of me? ( without my knowledge or permission)

  18. I agree with Liz. Sadly though, common sense isn’t all that common these days. “People who live in glass houses . . . . should buy curtains.”

  19. I’m just going to put this out there: Let’s say I have an apartment facing the street. I like to sit at my desk and work nekkid. You live across the street from me. You have small kids (just to up the ante a bit). You’re not happy about my “work habits’, so you snap a photo and go to the police and complain of indecency. Can I then turn it around and sue YOU for invading my privacy? After all, I’m in my home, my absolutely private space where you don’t have any right to look in and even less to tell me what do. So I’ve upset your kids? THEY’RE the criminals for looking in MY window! Who told them to? THEY ought to have the police called on THEM, right? I have a right to privacy in my own home, don’t I?

  20. Haven’t they ever heard of blinds?!!!!!!exhibitionists have no rights to there image.