When representing the home through an art form, we can settle for two perspectives – that of a person residing there, or of an outsider, lurking among the shadows and admiring the simple lives of the people living there. Sometimes, this perspective might get quite blurred or stuck between both probabilities, like in the case of the story I had written for my project – “A Lifetime To Remember” – which tells the story of a family, experienced by two outsiders and an old lady sharing the various memories of the events that took place in her family house. In the case of Arne Svenson’s controversial project titled “The Neighbors”, we get to explore daily lives of strangers taking on the comfortable role of a lurker.
Arne Svenson’s journey of photographing his neighbours’ daily lives began in 2012, when he realized, that the daily activities of the people living close to his studio were easily visible – and capture-able by camera – from their own windows. His aim wasn’t to be an intruder, nor was it to give away those people’s identity for selfish profit, as he mentions on his website that he clearly avoided depicting any identifiable traits, such as someone’s face. He was fascinated by the daily, the mundane, and the often-overlooked traits of the daily life, the things that are often taken for granted. His photos depict moments of solitude, blissful rituals undertaken by people to relax the mind, as well as daily activities rarely represented elsewhere.
The photos themselves are very intriguing, leading the onlookers to wonder about the continuation of the daily lives and activities of those depicted. Sometimes the outcomes are mysterious and barely mundane – particularly the photo of a woman partly hidden by the curtains. She’s standing still, motionless, and perfectly postured, as if she were posing with the intention of being photographed. Curiously, she doesn’t face the window, possibly not having the possibility of shaping the outcome of the photo she’s the main star of. This entire project feels like a breath of fresh air into the way of capturing the mundane and the everyday – through the lens of a lurker’s camera.
As ground-breaking and spectacular Arne Svenson’s project was, there have been a few controversies regarding his depiction of mentioned individuals. A very important discussion about the importance of consent has been born once I presented this project to the class, and speculations about the possibility of avoiding such troubles have been brought up as well. I will return to that part after discussing the nature of the controversies surrounding Svenson’s work. As his project was exhibited at Julie Saul Gallery in New York City, the photographs had drawn the attention of one of the depicted families. Feeling as if their vulnerability got exploited let them to file a lawsuit against the artist behind the project – a lawsuit they had lost. On his website’s post, Svenson shares his outlook on the matter, stating he has felt vilified by the media and the internet, and proudly stating that he has won against censorship.
While I understand Arne Svenson’s feelings upon having his project sued, my viewpoint about the situation slightly differs from his. I believe, that as artists, we are responsible for our art works, especially when depicting others. To me, Svenson’s work preyed on the vulnerabilities of people he had no connection with – he photographed those people in the comfort of their own house, unaware of his intrusion. They led their daily lives and activities in personal spaces, indulging in their vulnerabilities and being surrounded by them. That’s why, in my opinion, this project garnered an outlash so severe, unlike any other art project depicting people without their consent, where it has been done in a public space, surrounded by other individuals.
In my opinion, and in the opinion of some of the individuals I’ve discussed this phenomenon with, this outlash and breach of privacy could’ve been easily avoided had the author asked for the permission of those he was planning to depict. This would’ve let him create a similar project without the possibility of exploiting someone’s vulnerability without their consent. That doesn’t mean, however, that this outcome is flawless – as pointed out when I presented this project, the mere act of notifying people they’re going to be photographed could’ve easily changed the outcome. People anticipating the visitor could end up in situations that aren’t exactly natural to their uninterrupted daily routine, even if he kept the timing secret. Another issue with that solution is the fact, that people could simply decline his offer, as they could choose not to be depicted. This could’ve made the preparations longer, stretching the time needed to gather enough pieces, or even shatter the project altogether if no one volunteered to be depicted.
All of those routes have their own difficulties and unfavourable outcomes, which is what makes this project so alluring in the first place. Its charm lies not only in the idyllic shots of people living their lives, it opens up a greater discussion of consent and the responsibilities of an artist when it comes to depicting strangers it our works. I believe that this project is worthy of a more in-depth analysis, one that would uncover even more points of interest, which I’m sure there’s plenty of.
In my opinion, The Neighbors by Arne Svenson is a very important and intriguing project, that helps us understand the nature of human vulnerability and art itself. The photographs have a unique charm about them, inducing a feeling of spectatorship among those viewing it – separated from the stranger’s routines by the glass of their windows. The individuals become forever suspended in time, vulnerable and blissfully unaware.