Recently I was thinking of a series of photographs that I took in Hong Kong of residential buildings across the street from the hostel room where AB and I were staying.

After prying open the window, I had double-coiled my camera strap around my wrist and squeezed my Canon SLR camera pass the metal grill to take the photos. All that while, holding my breath and my hands steady to prevent any camera shake, but mainly because I was afraid that my camera would slip from my hands, free-fall 12 storeys and smash into smithereens, or worse yet, kill someone.

With the 35mm lens, I was able to capture a wide-enough perspective containing the elements that characterise the high-density housing buildings in Hong Kong. The featured photo – which is one of my favourite shots of Hong Kong – is a combination of two images taken that night.

If you look closely at the middle of this picture, you would see two human figures in a lit apartment. The man is seated and half-clothed, revealing his middle-age belly, and standing next to him is a woman, presumably his wife. It looks like they were either about to start dinner or had just finished eating. The outline of a bed frame in the same room confuses me a little. Then again, it would not be surprising if their sleeping and dining areas were one and the same as apartments in Hong Kong are infamous for their cramped quarters.

At one point, I wondered if I would have zoomed in on them if I had a telephoto lens with me. The answer is no. Partly because it would have been too intrusive. I would also rather preserve the anonymity and ambiguity of the situation, presenting this as part of a wider context – that of living in Hong Kong’s high-density apartments.

There are other people who are less, or not, concerned with the privacy of their neighbours and have used a telephoto lens to capture them without their permission. For instance, there is Michael Wolf who produced his “Window Watching” series by peeping into the apartments of Hong Kong residents. Arne Svenson was sued by his neighbours in New York after they recognised their children in “The Neighbors” exhibition at a nearby gallery (he won the court case under his First Amendment rights).

Where does one draw the line between voyeurism and art?

I rather like Svenson’s work in “The Neighbours” for how he has rendered banal activities into something quite beautiful and poetic. In these quiet observations of everyday life, the faces of the individuals are often either obstructed or out of view and thus do not outrightly identify them.

Some of Svenson’s photos remind me of paintings by Johannes Vermeer and Edward Hopper. For the fun of it, I’ve created the diptychs below, purposely matching similar images.

Edward Hopper night windows - Arne Svenson

The first features Edward Hoppers’ “Night Windows” and the second, “The Lacemaker” by Vermeer.

Vermeer lacemaker - Arne Svenson scissors

How would you feel if you were in the shoes of these neighbours? If someone secretly photographes you in your home in the name of art, would you feel violated?

By the way, the title of this blog post “Facing Windows” was inspired by the excellent Italian movie “La Finestra di Fronte”.

Starring Giovanna Mezzogiorno, the 2003 film revolves around a young married woman whose life changed after she encountered an elderly amnesiac man (Massimo Girotti) and in turn, met the handsome neighbour (Raoul Bova) who lives in the apartment across from hers. There’s romance and love, seduction, finding oneself, realising one’s dreams, as well as voyeurism as Mezzogiorno and Bova secretly observe each other through opposite windows.

One of my all-time favourite movie quotes is from this movie:
Don’t be content to merely survive, you must demand to live in a better world
Non si accontenti di sopravvivere, lei deve pretendere di vivere in un mondo migliore, non soltanto sognarlo

For more articles surrounding or discussing Svenson’s work in The Neighbours:

37 replies on “Facing Windows: Voyeurism or Art?

  1. Everyone has different values, and it seems people have polar opposite views regarding telephoto lenses and personal privacy. You make a good point showing Svenson and how he tastefully photographed unidentifiable subjects. Personally wouldn’t like being photographed in my home, but think “violated” is a term used *much* too frequently (IMHO would only apply if the photos were graphic in nature). And litigation (especially in the U.S.) has gotten out of control.

    1. All relative, like you said. I suppose people are also more protective of their privacy, especially of their children who are minors, as many more people are going around taking photos of strangers than say, 50 years ago. You can never be quite sure why someone is taking a photo of you and what it will be used for.

      1. So true, especially regarding young minors. The sad thing is that whether we like it or not, we’re all gradually losing privacy, photography aside.

  2. I love the mosaic of lives, compressed yet distinct, you have framed in your image. And I like how, whether intentionally or not, your engagement of privacy and the artist’s gaze indexes current debates on surveillance. If there is anything panoptic about your shot, it is a gaze that reveals, rather than pries open, the conditions of this moment, which I find admirable. Great post.

  3. Well done & very interesting. I dont think I would have a problem being in a random picture where I was obscured a bit. Your depiction of the apts is wonderful . It truly captures the density of of these places in Hong Kong.

  4. I would not like to be photographed yet I do street photography, often shooting from the hip. Double standards I know. I think voyeurism is zooming in with intent. I see no voyeurism in your images. They illustrate the soul of HK for many people. Tiny, sometimes even partitioned flats, where privacy is a luxury. And it will get worse as density rises. The windows theme is well explored in HK and quite a powerful one. Worth a portfolio of shots, I think, if you return.

    1. Hah, double standards indeed! 🙂 I’ve been into one of these flats more than 10 years ago when we were visiting relatives of a friend’s. It’s just like what one would see in HK films or television series. I recently watched “Made in Hong Kong”, a 1997 movie by Fruit Chan – after I had written my cheongsam post – and a lot of the filming took place in such buildings and apartments. I’m sure I’d return to Hong Kong… think it would be interesting to have a photo project in mind when I’m back.

  5. That’s quote thought-provoking. It immediately reminded me of this article that I read recently –

    I would like it if you could share your opinion about it.

    Thanks for sharing so many recommendations (implicitly). I had not heard of most of them and it was nice to know all that.

    I think I would not like someone secretly taking pictures of myself and my family, that would be a totally unacceptable invasion of privacy. But what he did was interesting, nevertheless 🙂

    I liked the diptychs quite a lot. And your picture is very stark! I didn’t know that Hong Kong had such ghetto like apartments!

    1. The image of the photographers taking pictures of the dead girl (Fabienne) is striking because it is uncommon to see other photographers appear in photos, especially those taken in conflict areas. Both photos are good, for different reasons. The latter simply shows what photojournalism is about and the photographers were just doing their job – documenting the situation as accurately as they can so that the truth can be shared with the rest of the world. The unfortunate death took place in public and I think it was the right thing for the photographers to have done – rather than walk away from it.

      Glad you enjoyed the links/recommendations. There’s so much information available online sometimes it’s difficult to decide what to leave in/out.

      The building that I photographed is rather typical of Hong Kong’s public housing estates. Nothing quite ghetto if you compare it with the Kowloon Walled City, which no longer exists, unfortunately. I posted a link to it in a comment above but just remembered a German documentary that I watched – which really shows what the place was like:
      Absolutely fascinating.

      1. Thank you very much for that response. Helps to hear it from the horse’s mouth.

        There’s been a lot of controversy over the two images and I felt that it was just blown out of proportion for the wrong reasons.

        Thank you for sharing the link to the documentary!

  6. Great shot! I would have used the zoom but wouldn’t have taken a photo (and if I couldn’t resist to click, wouldn’t have posted it). Which goes to say ”dont’ do unto others…” I’m checking out ”Facing Window”, sounds very interesting to aspiring peeping toms like me 😉 Have you watched ”Rear Window” (1954) with James Steward and Grace Kelly? Hitchcock at his best!

  7. Angelina, this is a very interesting topic and your links are really good reading. I love your photo too, it says so much about what these places must be like.

    I agree with your thoughts on Svenson’s series – they are poetic and full of stories. And while they are quite private I am not sure they are an invasion of privacy – there are no identifiable faces and no regrettable moments for those being photographed. However, I would not be all that happy if I thought that the people on the hillside behind my place had their telescopes (which can be seen in their windows and presumably are for watching ship traffic) or telephoto lenses trained on my windows.

    If that is how I react, does it make Svenson’s work an invasion of privacy? I suppose part of the answer might lie on Svenson’s hard drive – what images does he have of regrettable moments captured through his neighbour’s windows? Nudity, interpersonal violence, or merely nose picking – things he has chosen to not turn into publicly viewable art but which the neighbours would hate to think were seen, captured and stored somewhere. Regardless, taking those kinds of pictures could be considered a high-risk form of photography, art or not.

    1. I’m unsure about how I would feel or react if I were to find out that one of them has photographed me in my home without my knowledge. If it were of me eating granola out of the box while hunched over my laptop, dancing alone in my apartment or chopping vegetables in the kitchen, I would be curious to see how I have been perceived on the other side of the camera lens. But if it were of me dashing out of my bathroom because I had forgotten the towel or with my finger up my nose, I think I’d be furious! So like you said, who knows what has been left out of the public eye…

      Actually, two or three of his exhibited photos show the faces of the young children of his neighbours. While the faces were not very clear, the parents deemed it was enough to identify their children.

      There’s an interesting project done by Shizuka Yokomizo, a Japanese photographer a few years ago, titled “Stranger”. She sent anonymous letters to the selected individuals asking them to appear at their window at a stipulated date and time if they were agreeable to have their portraits taken by her while she is shielded in the cloak of darkness in the street outside:

      I find the dynamics of the relationship between Yokomizo and her subjects rather interesting as each holds a certain power/control over the other while remaining complete strangers to each other.

      1. I read about Yokomizo’s work, but had not seen any images so thanks for the link. I like them. They are posed in a way that I really like – assertive and complicit.

  8. A very thought-provoking post. I like your image a lot, which I don’t find intrusive, although I think if you are taking these kind of shots it’s good to engage with the debate on photography and surveillance. I definitely feel a lot more uncomfortable now taking pictures of pictures of people ‘reportage’ style where they are unaware of being photographed, and I would question the ethics of it, even though it’s much easier to do now with the technology we have. My rule of thumb is to make sure the people are not identifiable, but generally I think you always have to think of the bigger picture, and why you are doing it and if you can justify it and your photography is thoughtful, considered (and not harming anyone) I tend to think it’s ok. Here, for example, you are making a broader statement about the city of HK and the living conditions (as well as commenting on the aforementioned debate), which is relevant and informative as well as visually stimulating. The diptychs you created are really interesting too!

    1. Thanks for commenting Emily. I often am in a dilemma when it comes to photographing strangers – on one hand, I am aware that they may not appreciate it; on the other hand, the situations are sometimes so unusual/striking (could be in good or bad ways) that I feel compelled to record it so that I can share it with someone else or just to remember it. So sometimes I try to get around these by taking a photo from behind or such that the individual is not easily recognised. In more recent times, I find myself searching for more meaning, that I can relate to, in the photos that I take of people and I’d rather photograph individuals who I know and try to tell their stories through my eyes/lens.

  9. I love your photos! I don’t know camera terms but I especially like the way the buildings are both lit and shadowed — that particularly urban feeling of everything being both highly visible and surrounded by night.

    I wonder about the voyeurism/art question often too, especially when I sketch people in public. Obviously the public world is just that — public — and we can’t all control whatever likeness someone may wish to take of us. But I don’t like the idea of my recognizable image being used all over the place without my permission or knowledge. This is why I’ll sketch strangers without their noticing, but I won’t photograph them in a way where their friends would be able to recognize them; that’s what I would be okay with, were I the subject and my permission not asked.

    1. Thanks for your comment Lisa! The light in the photo was mainly from the street – the building has neon lights at its lower levels and it is by a main road. No special technical terms 😉

      When it comes to drawing/painting a portrait, the artist has much room to exercise his/her interpretation of the subject. For a portrait could be a physical resemblance to the subject OR it could be capturing the essence/spirit of this person while not really paying much attention to the physical likeness. I find the latter quite fascinating!

      That said, one could do the latter with photography to some extent and I think this is an interesting challenge. Maybe I should try this sometime, perhaps when I’m next back in Singapore I would do a series focusing on my family!

  10. Fantastic post. I saw the title and thought of the Michael Wolf thing. He was actually the subject of a privacy debate during the exhibition of this series (, but regardless of privacy, I think using a telephoto lens in this way, when the people are clearly recognisable, makes it so intrusive that it becomes something that isn’t actually very interesting, both in the subject and composition of the photos. The Svenson series is much more interesting in that at least there’s some mystery to the photos and the composition is more interesting.

    The wider angle that you used yourself also makes it far more interesting given a wider context. I think the viewer also finds themselves actually ‘looking’ for people in the photo rather than just being shown everything at once. So maybe it’s actually more voyeuristic on the part of the viewer rather than the photographer. Again, still much more interesting than the telephoto stuff.

    1. Hi Paul, thanks for taking the time to comment and sharing the link. I suppose what one leaves out and includes within a photo are equally important in telling the story that one wishes to communicate. I quite like the idea of the viewer searching for what’s going on within the image!

  11. Being a great fan of Hoppers work I find your diptych very captivating! There are man points of view, many reasons to think in different ways but for me what is important is the respect of the others. If I have a doubt that my photo could disturb the person photographed I wouldn’t take it. I was in HongKong only a few times for a week but your photo really bring me back to that times. That is the HK atmosphere! And I love the color pallette!

    1. Thanks Robert for taking the time to share your thoughts and I agree with your approach. The film simulation is Kodachrome64 using Raw Photo Processor and it brings out the different lights (from the street, traffic and within the apartments) nicely 🙂

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