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When is photography an invasion of privacy?

by on November 26, 2013

When Does Photography Become an Invasion of Privacy? Perhaps Never

As a photographer, an invasion of someone’s privacy is something I try not to cross while I am taking pictures for a story. This article addresses two very important instances that could be considered such, The Neighbors book published by Arne Svenson and the classic Fire Escape Collapse photo by Stanley Forman.

Though at a first glance one might think that Svenson’s piece is an invasion of privacy, because he is taking pictures of his neighbors from his window, and Forman’s photojournalistic photo is not, but I don’t think it’s that easy to make the choice. The article asks the question, “how does one quantify the importance of a photograph, whether as a personal object, a piece of journalism, a piece of art?” to which Arne Svenson says, of his work, ““I am not photographing the residents as specific, identifiable individuals, but as representations of humankind.” So you could even call his work photojournalistic because of the unknowing nature of his subjects.

One can also make the argument that Forman’s photo is an invasion of privacy because even though it is a powerful, and eventual Pulitzer Prize winning shot, these moments of the mother falling where her last which could be considered an “invasion of privacy, stripping away the dignity of one human’s death.”

In an essay from Esquire by Nora Ephron, which the article quotes, she makes a case that it is also not an invasion of privacy saying, “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.”

After reading both cases about the invasion of privacy, I do not find either of them to be one. What do you guys think?


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  1. I normally would have thought that The Neighbors is an invasion of privacy, but I can definitely see the author’s point of view when he says that he is not photographing them as individuals, rather as a representation of mankind. I still kind of think that it is an invasion of privacy, but it is definitely open to interpretation.

  2. It’s an interesting question. Personally, I would feel as if my privacy was invaded even though the images avoid showing the faces of the subjects in their apartments. As we discussed in class, I think most of us were in favor of shooting subjects in the privacy of their homes when they were under speculation of wrongdoing. These are innocent people, just like any of us, in their private homes. I think in this case, the author is causing harm in the pursue of art.

  3. mritz21 permalink

    I think that pictures of the deceased can usually be weighed on ethics based on individual cases. I believe that in times of war, oftentimes pictures of the deceased very accurately and effectively convey the realities of war which need to be exposed. However, I think that these decisions to run a photo should be judged with good reason. I think if there is a photo of someone’s head that has been blown off from their body due to an explosion that is very graphic in nature, that might be a little too far. It’s difficult to make these decisions because as a journalist you are supposed to convey the truth, but by the same token you often need to censor some of it for the American public or people are offended.

    Malea Ritz

  4. If I were the one getting my picture taken, I would certainly be upset about it and wouldn’t want it done. However, this person was doing their job as a photojournalist; capturing the moment and telling the story accurately through photography. I understand some may consider it insensitive, but the reality is that a journalist will find him/herself in countless situations where they will be forced to do the uncomfortable — tell an important story that requires dealing with a mourning, grieving family. Same goes for photojournalists. If you are anywhere in the world, even in your own home with the windows open, you are susceptible to being photographed, and that is especially true if you are in public dealing with a moment of tragedy and sadness. The photojournalist is simply doing his or her job, and I have no problem with that.

    – Nick

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