Why Photographer Arne Svensen Is An Unethical Creep

Photographer/artist/ Peeping Tom Arne Swenson as played by Jimmy Stewart in "Rear Window."

Photographer/artist/ Peeping Tom Arne Swenson as played by Jimmy Stewart in “Rear Window.”

“For my subjects there is no question of privacy; they are performing behind a transparent scrim on a stage of their own creation with the curtain raised high. The Neighbors don’t know they are being photographed; I carefully shoot from the shadows of my home into theirs.”

Believe it or not, this is how photographer Arne Svensen justifies his wildly unethical photographic peeping Tom excursions into his neighbor’s bedrooms for his own profit. This artist has provoked a controversy by 1) stalking the people who live in the New York apartment building across from his, 2) keeping a camera lens on them when they dare not to keep their windows shuttered as if they were vampires, 3) shooting photographs of whatever he sees that tickles his artistic sensibilities, fetishes or perversions, 4) choosing photos that do not show the faces of his subject victim, and 5) exhibiting and selling the results as artwork.

Amazingly, his neighbors object!

Let me cut to the chase here and be direct, because any minute now we are likely to find out that President Obama’s EPA has been secretly causing coal mine cave-ins and assassinating oil execs to forestall global warming, and that the President is outraged and just heard about it when we did, and will take strong action by telling the officials involved that they have to sit in the back during the next White House concert, and I’ll be distracted.

The media’s coverage of this story has all been about the “questions” raised about the legality of what Svenson does. That is an interesting question, no doubt, but it skirts the more important and far, far easier question (which the media doesn’t think about because the topic of ethics is largely alien to them): is what Svenson does fair, respectful, honest and right? The answer, not that Swenson cares, is “Are you kidding? What’s the hell’s the matter with you?” Of course it’s wrong! It is unethical. It is unethical in multiple ways. Anyone who can’t figure out in a heartbeat that it is unethical shouldn’t be trusted to work in a bank, be elected to office or own sharp objects. Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But not much.

Tell, me, Arne, you insufferable creep (I’m sorry, but that quote is the watermark of an arrogant abuser), is someone unethical who sits by his window with binoculars or a telescope and spies on his neighbors while they are in their homes, drool falling from his lips as he  happily watches them dress, go to the bathroom, make love, eat breakfast in their underwear, chew their food with their mouths open, read the latest issue of JUGS magazine, and generally live their lives as if nobody is watching them, which nobody shouldn’t? I’ll give you a hint: YES. Does looking at all of this using an expensive camera with a photographic lens make it less unethical? Obviously not, at least obvious to anyone capable of fair thought.

Now we have established that the underlying conduct that leads to his tony artwork putting money in Svenson’s  pockets is dead wrong. It is time to consider that…

  • He could have asked permission to do this, but didn’t. Why? Because he knew everyone would say “no” and report him as the Peeping Tom he is. When you know people will object, and reasonably so, to something you plan to do, and do it anyway, surreptitiously, you know it is wrong. It is disrespectful of their wishes and privacy, and using the unethical rationalization, “What they don’t know, won’t hurt them.”
  • He may only choose exhibit photos where third parties can’t identify his involuntary subjects, but he undoubtedly took shots, probably thousands, where they could be identified, and where they were engaged in activities not for his eyes. This is the essence of the violation of privacy and unethical voyeurism. Who knows what he does with or to these photos behind his closed doors? Should his subjects have to imagine this ethically-handicapped man licking their images while humming “The Stripper, buck naked and covered in whipped cream? He has no right to have those images, much less do God knows what with them.
  • Svenson took something from each of his subjects-–their images, their privacy, their sense of security, their dignity—and used it for his own purposes. This is a violation of Kant’s Categorical Imperative, using human beings without their consent.
  • The artist could have asked their permission to publicly exhibit the photos. He could have paid his subjects who did not want to give their images away. He could have given them a royalty on the proceeds of the sales, in return for what they contributed—a subject!—to his artistic product. He did none of these things. He stole from them, essentially, whether the law recognizes it or not.
  • The security of these innocent neighbors has been disturbed. The enjoyment of their homes has been undermined. Their trust in their neighbors and the neighborhood has been shattered. The apartment building itself is less valuable, since it now labors under the disadvantage of having a self-justifying spy/perv lurking outside, looking for the first crack in a window’s blinds or curtains, ready to convert an unaware and unconsenting occupant into his unpaid model. “Yes, now for this location you need to know about our neighborhood voyeur and creep—you better keep your curtains drawn , or your ass will end up on Donald Trump’s wall!” Yes, I’m going to jump at renting that place.

Let’s take an inventory, shall we?

1. This violates the Golden Rule, or reciprocity. The standard for someone like Svenson, by the way, is not “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Others Do Unto You Because You Are A Sociopathic Creep With Warped Values.” “You” in the rule presupposes some one fair, decent and reasonable.

2. It violates the Categorical Imperative.

3. It can’t be justified by utilitarianism. Svensen’s deathless artworks and his enrichment does not begin to benefit society enough to justify how his activities make his neighborhood less able to sustain the enjoyment of life, or the abysmal standard it sets for consideration of others, respect for privacy, and exploitation of trust.

4. “Anything for art” is not an acknowledged or legitimate ethical standard.

Is what he does illegal? I don’t care—it is utterly, indefensibly wrong. Svenson’s neighbors are not performing for him: they have not consented to be his monkeys. Their homes are not  “stages of their own creation” just because he surreptitiously treats them that way.  Blinds are not “curtains” on a theatrical performance, and we should not have to keep ours shut tight because of spying rotters like Svenson. He may be a talented artist, but he’s a bad neighbor and a social menace who is evidently immune to ethical thought.


Pointer: CNN
Facts: Stamford Advocate
Graphic: Jasonbovberg

14 thoughts on “Why Photographer Arne Svensen Is An Unethical Creep

  1. Even the most lurid pornography is — the majority of the time — made with the participants’ consent, so this is almost a Park Avenue version of sites like IsAnybodyDown.com and such.

    He may be a talented artist, but he’s a bad neighbor and a social menace who is evidently immune to ethical thought.

    Do you think that an argument can be made for talent and ethics going hand in hand in this case? If he was a great photographer who cheated on his taxes and was a lousy tipper, I’d say he was talented but unethical; but scraping the bottom of the barrel for the sake of art demonstrates — in my opinion — a severe lack of talent.

    • Jack, I have no idea why this perfectly legit post (thanks for joining in) got spammed and this, from “kancelaria adwokacka”— “Range of motion can be a good way in and this to reduce strains at work. In this particular case consider detox protocols several mperiods before an utilization of is submitted”—got through. WordPress’s spam program is getting senile.

      • It was probably a combination of the use of the “P-word” in the first sentence and the unlinked URL mentioned. Although one would think that since I’ve commented here before, the filters would be a bit more permissive.

        Thanks for salvaging my comment!

  2. I’m a private person to begin with.
    I can’t even imagine how violated I would feel about someone photographing me through my windows.
    This guy is a creep.

  3. “4. “Anything for art” is not an acknowledged or legitimate ethical standard.”
    Yes, but that doesn’t stop a lot of them.
    Sometimes, along with ‘urban’ and ‘edgy’ comes immoral.

  4. BTW, for anyone who hasn’t seen it, Rear Window is an excellent movie.
    One of my favorites from that time period.

  5. I think the key word Svenson used here is “perform”. This word is applied only to people who deliberately present themselves to the camera in some sort of role, such as actors. None of these people were that. They were unknowing victims. Svenson follows in the footsteps of a great many comtemporaries in redefining this term for the sake of profitable depravity. No doubt, his definition of “art” is similarly skewed.

  6. Pingback: Is it ‘art’ or just plain creepy? | A Matter of Perspective

  7. I agree– unethical creep. Also– why should garbage like this even be considered “art”? There was a time when you had to EARN the right to be called and “artist” and had to demonstrate actual skill and aptitude to be so considered. Merely taking pictures of your neighbors through their windows would NOT have been considered “art,” but would have attracted the attention of the police, who likely would have arrested you for being a “peeping Tom”– as well anyone should be who photographs people without their knowledge or consent.

  8. I cudnt agree more! Im a private person as it is and if one of my neighbors was taking pictures of me behind my back and displaying them publicly, I would be feeeeeaaaked out ya know. It cud hv been in the name of art and I get that its not showing their faces but it really is intruding into someone’s personal life. That whole time he was spying on these people with a camera, so wats to say he observed a lot more than what he was letting one. People cudve been fucking for all we know and he might’ve just sat there taking pictures for some kinky private collection. The fact that he had total access to somebody’s personal haven is revolting! People have the right to privacy and peace within their home, yet its ok for some sexually frustrated creep to take pics of them. Imagine how violated these neighbors must feel!!!! Fuck this guy

  9. While I agree with your general assessment that Svenson’s actions are neither ethical nor very well justified, I believe that your statements asserting he is completely unethical and “evidently immune to ethical thought” are drastic, lacking the balanced and objective approach that an analysis of ethics deserves.
    As you have pointed out, Svenson has chosen to only show photos where third parties are unable to easily identify his subjects. His decision provides evidence of some ethical considerations in regards to his neighbours’ greater privacy – at least he has kept within the boundaries of not physically intruding and photographing more private spaces, only taking photos of sights that he could have seen from his apartment on a normal basis, arguably not too different from having memories of said sights (with the additional, aforementioned benefit of anonymity when sharing them).
    Regarding your counterargument to this, you have claimed that he “undoubtedly took shots, probably thousands, where they could be identified, and where they were engaged in activities not for his eyes.” This is a claim you cannot completely verify and therefore should refrain from using as conclusive evidence to support your assessment. While it is possible that he did take multiple, potentially ethically questionable shots, it is still possible that he patiently waited for more ethical shots. Further, although it is not unlikely that he had to spend a length of time watching his neighbours’ windows and waiting for shots, it is also possible that he had ‘happy accidents’ and was able to capture good and ethical shots at the times he sought to take them. None of these claims are entirely reasonable without stronger evidence that suggests otherwise and, until then, are possibilities that should be considered equally.
    Your early claims and judgements here shape some of your subsequent views and analysis of Svenson, causing your assessment to fall further into subjectivity and the territory of unwarranted condemnation rather than a fair and objective analysis of Svenson’s views and compliance of privacy and ethics.

    To reference one of your more recent articles, “If You Can’t See Both Sides Of The Ferguson Mess, Then You Are Too Biased To Be Anything But A Part Of The Problem”, you state the necessity of balance and objectivity in assessing the situation in Ferguson and describe that a fair assessment should recognise “that both sides have good cause to see the event the way they do”. Your thoughts in that article show recognition of the problems biased analyses and assessments of ethics have, but, as I have described, are not quite reflected in your own analysis and assessment of Svenson here.

    It would be disrespectful of me, especially after talking about balance and objectivity, to assume that the person you were over a year ago (and can now only interpret the thoughts on this topic through this article) shares exactly the same thoughts and perspective as who you are today, I know that you frequently reply to comments posted and hope you will be willing to briefly share some of your current day thoughts.

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