The Legality and Ethics of Pointing a Lens Into a Private Residence for Art


Award-winning photographer Michael Wolf is raising some eyebrows with a new photo project titled “Window Watching.” The series features photographs of high-rise apartment windows in Hong Kong, offering glimpses into the lives of people living inside the private residences. Basically, Wolf pointed a telephoto lens at open windows to photograph people going about their day-to-day-lives, without their knowledge and consent.

The photos show relatively mundane activities: in one we see a person watching television, in another a young man is doing pushups, and in another a woman is packing a suitcase. In some of the shots the subjects’ faces are clearly visible, while in others they’re obscured either by motion blur or by something being in the way.


Just 6 months ago we featured a video interview with Wolf in which he talked about his fascination with “peeping into people’s lives through photography.” He had done a similar project a while back titled “Transparency City“. For that one, he photographed buildings in Chicago with a telephoto lens, and often captured glimpses into people’s private lives through the building windows.

Regardless of whether or not Wolf’s latest project is accepted by the general public, there’s a chance that the photographer’s work is unacceptable with the law in Hong Kong. The South China Morning Post reports that an anonymous legal expert believes that the photos break the local privacy laws.


Although subjects in the photos could theoretically file lawsuits against Wolf for breaching their privacy, most of the subjects probably do not have the financial resources to engage in a legal battle. The newspaper also states that Wolf is unlikely to be in any trouble with authorities unless there is a formal complaint filed by someone involved.

You can view the Window Watching series of images for yourself over on Wolf’s website.

Michael Wolf photo exhibit may breach privacy law, expert warns [SCMP]

P.S. Wolf is the same photographer who caused quite a bit of discussion in the photography world a couple of years ago after submitting Google Street View screenshots to the World Press Photo contest… and then walking away with an Honorable Mention.

Thanks for sending in the tip, Brett!

  • Matt

    Wow, creepy.

  • Samcornwell

    These remind me of Merry Alpern’s Dirty Windows project. From memory Alpern’s apartment window faced on to a seedy back alley… well do a search and you’ll see some of the work.

  • Samuel

    I was always taught that “Reasonable expectation of privacy” stretched into having to have your curtains closed. If you are sat in front of a floor to ceiling of a high rise without a curtain then you are reasonably not expecting privacy.

    I’m totally open to being corrected in this but thats what i always thought.

  • Igor Ken

    This man is a modern artist :) I like his projects. Especially the google street view one!

  • Renato Murakami

    I don’t know about the legality and ethics, but it shure makes me cringe.
    I hope someone does have the money for the lawsuit.

  • David Thunander

    I kinda like the pictures.

  • David Liang

    Interesting point I definitely agree on the reasonable expectation part. However, it’s also unreasonable to assume there is a photographer across your building, using a telephoto lens, taking pictures of you then showing those images publicly and possibly for commercial use. That I think is where this photographer crosses the line.

  • Dikaiosune01

    I thought that reasonable expectation of privacy only extended to what is visible from a public space by the human eye. In a court of law, that would likely equate to around 50mm on a 135 or full frame sensor. If the curtains are closed, there is an expectation of privacy too; but there are already curtains, which supposedly you can’t see through.

  • Scott M

    On his website there is a series of photos called, “the real toy story.” Last shot is him using a camera that looks like a mini 8×10? What is that?

  • tehhijau

    They shootin thru yo windows…

  • D.G. Brown

    Having lived in an area like that (in a corner flat with floor to ceiling windows), you just live assuming people can see you if your curtains are open. That’s not nearly as creepy as waking up to the window washers.

    I would say, for my personal preference, that I like the pictures where the person isn’t identifiable, just because it conveys the sentiment without necessarily exposing the person (just seems a little more polite).

  • Mansgame

    This is why people hate photographers.

  • eraserhead12

    that’s vaguely like saying if a girl wears a skirt/dress, she’s asking for people to stick cameras under the table.

  • tertius_decimus

    Now, that is voyeur.

  • Jake

    This is a mean thing to do. Forget about the law, forget about “right to privacy” and “photographers’ rights.” It is just outright mean and shouldn’t be done without consent. Why does there always need to be a discussion?? Why is it always about “how far jerks can go within their rights?” and not “Stop being a jerk!”

  • lidocaineus

    I’m not saying I agree or disagree with the ethics involved here, but using “politeness” as some sort of metric is flawed – one person’s jerk is another person’s hero. This is why we have laws that are malleable. Don’t like what’s happening? Change the law, not the person exercising their rights (and again, I’m not sure he’s totally within his rights here).

  • Samuel

    There needs to be a discussion because whats right an wrong cant be decided by one persons opinion of a “jerk”. I imagine a grieving syrian mother is not always happy to be photographed but its important. This is obviously not the same but you cant restrict art based on opinion.

  • Jake

    Again, I’m not talking about rules or codes or restrictions. Those would be far too hard to uphold and the implications are very different, as many photojournalists can attest.

    All I’m saying is that if you came up with this project idea, would you first ask yourself “Would I want someone publishing pictures taken of me in in my home without me knowing? Would I want shots of me doing pushups or watching TV in my undies online?” If the answer is no, and I think it would be for most people, then you should consider not doing it. That’s why I don’t do street photography or candid portrait work unless I can ask the subject first; because I would be pretty pissed off if someone randomly took a picture of me. It’s just my feeling, and I understand why others have no objections to that kind of work, but the same issue applies.

  • Samuel

    Hmm i see you point and do take it on board but without people doing that we wouldn’t have a great deal of the fantastic photos that exist historically from Bresson or Lessing.

    Would I want photos of me totally relaxed and not aware of someone taking my photo ? No i wouldn’t but if someone did then I’m not sure how i’d feel.

    I’d like to hear from anyone in any of Wolf’s work but i doubt any of them have any clue they exist.

  • Cameron Knight

    In the US, if one of the people in the photos brought decided to sue the photographer for invasion of privacy, then that individual could ruin that photographer’s career.

    But it’s not something that the cops will go pick someone up for. It’s like if your landlord is scamming you. The cops aren’t out looking for that. You have to bring a lawsuit against the landlord.

    If I had a law degree and lived in Hong Kong, I would be hunting down every person he photographed and then I’d file a class action lawsuit and bury that guy. And get a nice lawyer fee on top of it.

  • brett

    i live in this neighborhood and recognise each of the buildings. i’m pretty sure he could shoot into my home from his building, so this hits pretty close to home for me (pun intended).
    whilst i agree that it’s probably fair not to expect privacy with my curtains open – i also think it’s fair that a photographer does NOT have the right to publish an identifiable likeness of me without my consent. i think the moral and legal exception would be if i was doing something ‘newsworthy’.
    i feel what he has done here morally reprehensible and if i happen to see a shot of myself or a family member i wouldn’t hesitate to sue!
    this is not art. it’s voyeurism, plain and simple.

  • Covington

    We all have a reasonable expectation to privacy in our own homes. This photography is unacceptable

  • Katie

    I think we all to often use art as an excuse to do things that would otherwise be black and white. If anybody else did this there would be no question that they would be labeled a peeping Tom or stalker. But because this guy labels it “art” there’s an actual discussion as to whether it’s right or wrong.

  • Melissa W. Richards

    I think if you leave your curtains open, you can expect someone might be watching. However, I strongly disagree with capturing/using/gaining profit from images that include indentifiable views of faces when consent has not been given. One can expect no privacy when in public locations, one DOES have a reasonable expectation of privacy within the confines of one’s home.

  • roger

    Got drapes?

  • P

    I’m not really sure how this is much more invasive of privacy than most street photographs anyway. I like this series a lot.