New York courts rule in favour of artist who secretly photographed neighbours – but call for change in privacy laws

Using a telephoto lens, in 2013 photographer Arne Svenson took pictures of residents in their downtown New York apartments without their knowledge. When these works, collectively forming the series ‘The Neighbours’, were first exhibited that year at Julie Saul Gallery they sparked controversy, and a lawsuit. 

Last week the unanimous decision of a seven-panel judge in the state courts was that Svenson’s work was within the remit of the First Amendment, and that those rights outweighed a person’s right to privacy within a cramped city such as New York.

In New York, laws prohibit “non-consensual use of a person’s name, portrait or picture for advertising or trade purposes.” However, the laws also allow an exception for news media and so-called “matters of public concern.” Artistic expression in the form of artwork fell under the category of ‘public interest’, Justice Dianne Renwick explained, and therefore  “must therefore be given the same leeway extended to the press under the newsworthy and public concern exemption to the statutory tort of invasion of privacy.”

However, the panel were apparently unsettled by the images and asked for New York state privacy laws to be expanded. Judge Renwick wrote: “Many people would be rightfully offended by the intrusive manner in which the photographs were taken. In these times of heightened threats to privacy posed by new and ever more invasive technologies, we call upon the legislature to revisit this important issue, as we are constrained to apply the law as it exists.”

The exhibition ‘The Workers’, the follow-up to the ‘The Neighbours’, is currently on view at Julie Saul Gallery until 30 May.

Read more in The New Yorker

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