“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.
Facts: Stamford Advocate