The quickest way to lose any social argument is to hide behind claiming the wellbeing of your children is at risk while not standing in front of them and offering them direct protection.  If you’re truly concerned about the welfare of your offspring, instantly act on their behalf, and don’t slog into the courts to beg a remedy to a simple matter of privacy that could be solved simply by drawing the curtains.

There’s an old saying in the Deaf Community when it comes to watching other people’s Sign Language conversations from across the room — “eyes for for?” — meaning “my eyes are for watching, and if you don’t want to be watched, then move out of my line of sight. Make your own privacy.”

Today, we could say the same thing about a camera in situ — “photos for for?”

There’s a big hoo-hah here in New York City over the right of a family to demand privacy in their floor-to-ceiling windowed apartment — even though they leave the curtains open — so anyone, and everyone, can see directly into their living space.

One neighbor, Arne Svenson, found the patterns of the family’s windows intriguing and took a series of images of them as part of his “The Neighbors” photography series.  Here’s an example from his fascinating collection:

Here’s how the project is described:

With Arne Svenson’s new series, Neighbors, he has turned outward from his usual studio based practice to study the daily activities of his downtown Manhattan neighbors as seen through his windows into theirs. Svenson has always combined a highly developed aesthetic sense viewed from the perspective of social anthropology in his eclectic projects with subjects ranging from prisoners to sock monkeys. His projects are almost always instigated by an external or random experience which brings new objects or equipment into his life- in this case he inherited a bird watching telephoto lens from a friend.

The grid structure of the windows frame the quotidian activities of the neighbors, forming images which are puzzling, endearing, theatrical and often seem to mimic art history, from Delacroix to Vermeer. The Neighbors is social documentation in a very rarified environment. The large color prints have been cropped to various orientations and sizes to condense and focus the action.

The Neighbors is wildly wonderful, but one family didn’t think so — and they took Arne to court to get their privacy back by taking back the photos they did not take.

In an amazing decision, the judge stood behind Arne’s True Art — and not the false privacy concerns of the family in question:

Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Eileen Rakower ruled Thursday that the right of Arne Svenson to take photos without permission of Martha and Matthew Foster and their children and exhibit them trumps the family’s right to privacy in their home, which has floor-to-ceiling windows.

Rakower said she did not believe the case violated state civil rights law, which makes it a misdemeanor to take an unauthorized photo for advertising or trade purposes.

“Art is considered free speech and is therefore protected by the First Amendment,” Rakower wrote. She said it was within Svenson’s artistic rights to promote his show by sharing some of the photos with a weekly newspaper and by offering to sell them on the Internet.

“While it makes the [Fosters] cringe to think that their private lives and images of their small children can find their way into the public forum of an art exhibition, there is no redress under the current laws of the state of New York,” Rakower wrote.

I applaud the Rakower wisdom.  If the offended Foster family had any common sense, they would have pulled their curtains during the day if they wanted privacy.  I’m sure Arne isn’t the only one watching them during the day.

Why the Fosters chose to involve the courts instead of just making it more difficult for any outside eye to see them is a curiosity.  Do the Fosters think they are somehow special in a city of eight million people that they can command what people see and record and look at later?

Are the Fosters aware of the impending Google Glass invasion which will make us all curtains-less and freely naked against-our-will on the willful streets of New York City and elsewhere?

We have no right to privacy on the street — or on display in our floor-to-ceiling apartment windows — and we’d better get used to finding new ways to hide in plain sight if we ever hope to shy away from the Panopticonic gaze of our neighbors, friends, and enemies.


  1. ooooh that is one very interesting judgement and one I suspect could well be peculiar to New York – depending on the statutes applicable in each state vary considerably. I am wondering how this is going to affect privacy laws concerning the rich and famous and the paparazzi – and how it would affect people trying to take a camera into a concert – HA!

    I love the concept behind the series – I suspect that it would have been more polite to ask first – and if I am photographing people who can be recognized I always ask first – but that would have taken something away from the concept.

    The family obviously thought they would try and make a quick buck – and I bet they have already violated their children’s privacy without their consent by plastering pictures of them all over facebook.

    I hate curtains – they are in the same group as lampshades – a sometimes unnecessary evil. What I do like in fact LOVE are my shutters on the outside of my windows and the fact I have no neighbors!

    Will we be allowed to hide in plain sight – some of us already do – there is a lot of controversy about those Muslim women who already do – not withstanding their choice in the matter which is another debate. Even Arab men wear long flowing robes and hide in site and again stir up controversy by doing so. There are rulings around the world to forbid the wearing of the Hijab and the Burqa – maybe people will start to understand the original intent behind these garments.

    Note here I do not condone the forced/enforced wearing of such garments.

    1. There is some history in the USA that you have no privacy at home if you leave your curtains open. It’s even a part of our socio-entertainment economy in “Rear Window” and “Body Double.” However, it is becoming harder to legitimize the right to take “upskirt” camera shots of women on the subway because people are starting to agree there needs to be some expectation of privacy that belongs to a woman between her legs.

      There’s even a sport in the Big Cities to “people watch” — especially at night for easier viewing — using binoculars and telescopes to “watch” your far far away neighbors in their homes so there’s no way they can see you peering at them with their naked eye. It’s an odd way to entertain oneself and that’s why we must all be aware that we need to draw the blinds, close the curtains and pull down the shades if we don’t want to end up on the web or in Google Glass or in someone’s telescopic eyeball.

      We really do live in glass houses now, and it’s pretty amazing how many people don’t cover their windows at night. It’s truly an oddity. There are lots of creative and technological ways to block people from looking in without impeding your watching out.

      I do wonder if people will start wearing some sort of mask or disguise to avoid being so publicly raw and identifiable in public. It’s going to get harder and harder to not be known and followed as you try to move to and fro.

      The eerie and awful — “Papers, please” — will undoubtedly soon become, “You should not have gone there.”

    1. We’ve gone from “Eyes on the Street” to eyeballs in the bedroom! It’s funny that the people most at risk of this “neighbor spying” are the rich — because they’re the only ones who can afford to live in floor-to-ceiling glass boxes!

      Who is going to wear glasses with 11 LED lights to make their face invisible? Just by wearing them you’re alerting people around you and the authorities that you’re hiding your identity. There has to be a better way…

      Here are a couple of “Mask” articles. We’ve talked a lot about this in the past…

  2. The LED’s can only bee seen by the camera – they are invisible to the human eye.

    “The secret? The chunky glasses are lined with 11 near-infrared LEDs, which remain invisible to the human eye but appear bright and disruptive to the infrared camera.”

    They look very like ski goggles or wrap around visors – quite common over here where we have a lot of sun.

    I am sure there is make up being designed to reflect light in different directions to confuse cameras. That would be an obvious way.

    From what I understand of facial recognition it looks at the measurements of the bones on the face in relation to the other features – something across the eyes has to be the easiest way of doing that.

    Maybe we will all ride motor cycles – or at least wear the helmets!

    1. I still think if you’re being surveilled, and the LEDs are working — you’re gaining the opposite effect you are seeking — you have a big, bright set of lights where you face is supposed to be. You’re only worried about the people with cameras, not those uninterested around you.

      I’m sure these sorts of goggles will be outlawed much like the plastic fresnel license plate filters that disallow a clear image of the numbers for the Red Light Cameras.

      Many malls have rules against wearing masks or hooded sweatshirts — for security reasons, of course — and I can see that rule easily wending its way to the streets in the name of security and national defense.

      This all reminds me of video camera filters that allow you to “see through” clothing of unsuspecting people by using infrared mode. There were lots of YouTube videos on the matter in the mad rush to discover it all a few years ago. This one has over 35 millions views so far:

  3. As I was writing I thought about the number plate hiding technology and how that was banned and thinking anything like this is going to go the same way.

    1. Yeah! It’s all going to go away and we’re going to be stuck — stuck with mandatory RFID capsules injected into our forearms. Oh, the woe! We will never own ourselves again. We’ll truly be slaves to the technology we created.

      I couldn’t believe it when I read that the problem with the NSA, the NSA thinks, is not in its policies of spying on its own people, but rather in its execution… and they plan to use robots instead of people… because machines tell no tales!

  4. From our kitchen, there is a window which overlooks one of our neighboring apartment buildings. There is an elderly woman who regularly goes into her kitchen completely naked. I don’t know if she realizes that she can be seen by just about anyone in our building, but I do wish she would get curtains — would make for a much better neighbor!

    The family that complained about getting photographed probably are oblivious to the thousands of times they are photographed every time they leave their home.

    1. That’s reminds of years ago living in the East Village. In a highrise next to us there was a woman dancing naked in her window. She kept looking around to see if anyone could see her and I guess she didn’t see me. I didn’t feel bad about watching because she was clearly putting on a performance out the window.

      There was another report last year about NYC neighbors who wrote a note across their windows for the people living across the street: “We Can See You Having Sex!” They WANTED them to close their windows. They were tired of having all that flesh on display every night. Sometimes you can’t not watch…

  5. This is just another example of the greatest and most digusting and pernicious mental and moral failing of a large segment of the society within America. There’s a large cabal that truly believes that choices and action should not have negative consequences or negatively affect one’s outcomes.

    1. Hi jonolan!

      Oh, how we have missed you! You went straight to publication! Yay! No Spam queue for you. It looks like you were able to straighten out the “Silencing You by Spam-folder” other blogs were smacking you with awhile ago. Did you do anything specific to solve it?

      Which side are you on in this argument? The photographer or the family?

      1. Yeah, it seems to be resolved though I really did nothing in specific to correct it.

        As for sides, I’m on the side of the photographer. The people made a choice to live as they do and they need to learn to accept the consequences of that choice with some modicum of grace.

        1. I’m glad the Spam problem resolved itself, jonolan. That was annoying and unfair to you.

          You’re spot on about the “modicum of grace” point. Watching the father whine on TV after losing in court made me fear for his children — the man was not a leader or a protector or a font of inspiration for the future.

          1. No, he definitely doesn’t seem to be a protector or a font of inspiration for the future. He does seem to be, however, a classic Liberal in the sense that he’s steeped in the entitlement mentality and wants outcomes to have nothing to do with choices or efforts.

            It’s all part of the same problem. Whether it’s Blacks, women, or anyone else – including this family – the Liberals can’t stand poor choices bringing negative consequences.

          2. The whole thing to me reads more a failure of parenting than one of a choice on the political landscape.

            What concerns me most about the father is that he was so surprised — SHOCKED!, even — that anyone would even be looking into his apartment from the outside. It’s that lack of self-awareness and danger assessment that really puts his kids at risk.

          3. David,

            All politics are just expressions of ideology insofar as I can see. They are just attempts to bring the goals of those ideologies to widespread fruition.

            And then it starts a feedback loop…and you end up with people like those idiots.

          4. I appreciate the insight, jonolan! Your analysis is always intriguing and thought-provoking!

            I agree that the feedback loop is always dangerous for any mind. The task is to learn ways to break the circle of yourself and try to get some neutral, outside, perspective.

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