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When Does Photography Become an Invasion of Privacy? Perhaps Never

New York-based photographer Arne Svenson’s series The Neighbors was recently the subject of a lawsuit; the neighbors in question — two, to be exact — sued Svenson for invading their privacy. In the photos, Svenson turned his lens to the large, neighboring glass windows of his Tribeca apartment, and snapped images those who lived behind them. This week a court ruled in favor of Svenson on the grounds that the series of images was protected under the First Amendment. 

“I find the unrehearsed, unconscious aspects of life the most beautiful to photograph, as they are most open to interpretation, to a narrative,” Svenson explained to The Guardian. “A dramatic moment has the single power of action, but tiny, linked moments are how we mark time on this earth — I am much more interested in recording the breath between words than I am the actual words themselves.” It’s interesting, of course, that the subjects of his photographs — who, within the actual images, were not recognizable — considered them to be an invasion of their privacy but did not, ironically, actually seem to have a problem with living in apartments whose open windows put them in full view of their neighbors on a daily basis, as is so often the case in New York City. The photographs, physical artifacts, do lack the ephemeral quality of casual glances (although one could imagine that if Svenson sat at his window with binoculars, staring into his neighbors’ apartments, there would be more of a case for an invasion of privacy).

Photography, as always, has a lot of ethical gray areas. I immediately think of Pultizer Prize-winning photojournalist Stanley Forman, perhaps most famous for his shot The Soiling of Old Glory, which he snapped during desegregation protests in Boston on April 5, 1976. But it was his more controversial series of photos, taken the year before, that caused an uproar when they were published on the front pages of newspapers nationwide.

fire escape collapse

Photo credit: Stanley Forman

The subjects of Fire Escape Collapse are 19-year-old Diana Bryant and her two-year-old daughter, Tiare Jones, who, in an attempt to escape their burning apartment building, fell to the sidewalk below when the fire escape gave way. Bryant did not survive the fall, but the child, who landed on the body of her mother, miraculously did. In the image above, both are alive, suspended in mid-air, seemingly safe and secure in a split second of time.

The image of Bryant and Jones was captured in public by a reputable photojournalist, who won an Pulitzer for his photograph, no less. Yet one could argue that the moment seen above — of a young woman, the look of fear on her face slightly obscured by the chance placement of her arm as she fell to her death — is an invasion of privacy, stripping away the dignity of one human’s death.

Readers of the major news outlets that carried the photographs wrote numerous letters to the editors, complaining of the sensational nature of the images. In an essay in Esquire, titled “The Boston Photographs,” then-media critic Nora Ephron defended the images and the editors who ran them in their newspapers:

I recognize that printing pictures of corpses raises all sorts of problems about taste and titillation and sensationalism; the fact is, however, that people die. Death happens to be one of life’s main events. And it is irresponsible — and more than that, inaccurate — for newspapers to fail to show it, or to show it only when an astonishing set of photos comes in over the Associated Press wire. Most papers covering fatal automobile accidents will print pictures of mangled cars. But the significance of fatal automobile accidents is not that a great deal of steel is twisted but that people die. Why not show it? That’s what accidents are about. Throughout the Vietnam War, editors were reluctant to print atrocity pictures. Why not print them? That’s what that was about. Murder victims are almost never photographed; they are granted their privacy. But their relatives are relentlessly pictured on their way in and out of hospitals and morgues and funerals.

The question is: how does one quantify the importance of a photograph, whether as a personal object, a piece of journalism, a piece of art? Arne Svenson says of his work, “I am not photographing the residents as specific, identifiable individuals, but as representations of humankind.” One could agree with Ephron’s argument that Stanley Forman was doing the same thing: he was but a bystander with a camera, capturing the moments that represent the nature of humanity. Those moments, unfortunately, represent death and, in the case of The Soiling of Old Glory, hatred and violence. (There is, of course, another ethical argument to be had over the latter photograph, as Forman did not intervene when a young white man attempted to gouge a black demonstrator with a flag pole.)

Compared to Forman’s work, Svenson’s The Neighbors, a sampling of photos from which you can see below, is the opposite of sensational; just like Fire Escape Collapse, the identities of Svenson’s subjects are anonymous, and it is the viewer of the photograph who must come up with a narrative, a meaning.

Photo credit: Arne Svenson

Photo credit: Arne Svenson

Photo credit: Arne Svenson

Photo credit: Arne Svenson

Photo credit: Arne Svenson

Photo credit: Arne Svenson

We live in an era where we still mistakenly believe that we can claim ownership over the images of ourselves. Yet we are constantly being watched, looked at, sneakily viewed. It’s part of the human existence: to be constantly on display for others, whether we want to be or not.

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