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The fine art of spying on your neighbors

Gail Albert Halaban has traveled around the world introducing neighbors to each other–so she can photograph them.

If you live in an apartment in a city like New York or Paris, chances are you secretly spy on your neighbors. It’s hard not to. In my New York apartment, my living room window is only about 30 feet away from my neighbor’s. You notice things–like the fact that my neighbor had red plaid curtains until a woman started showing her face. The curtains quickly disappeared.

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Turns out I’m not alone in my morbid curiosity about my neighbors’ tastes in window coverings. New York-based photographer Gail Albert Halaban has spent 13 years photographing people’s relationships with those they can see from their windows–and actually helping them meet each other. For her sprawling, multi-city photo series Out My Window, Halaban helps a person meet the folks who live across from them, and then stages a photograph of those people with their permission. She sets up lighting in their apartment, and then photographs them from across the way, capturing their lives through the window.

[Photo: Gail Albert Halaban]

That might sound invasive, but Halaban says that nearly every single person she’s explained the project to has acquiesced to be photographed. After doing a series in New York, the French newspaper Le Monde asked her to do one in Paris, and she went on to do them in Buenos Aires, Istanbul, and Rome. While initially she chose people based on her local network in New York, she traveled to cities like Istanbul and Rome because people who were fans of her work reached out and offered to host her and connect her to people they knew, giving her a head start on finding willing subjects. This summer, the full breadth of Halaban’s series will be on display at the Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York.

The series began after Halaban moved to New York from Los Angeles over a decade ago. She remembers the spark of the idea came on her daughter’s first birthday. “A flower shop across the street sent her balloons and flowers and a note saying, happy birthday, it’s been fun watching your daughter grow up,” Halaban says. “It was a bit creepy.” But once she got past the voyeurism, Halaban went down to thank the florists, who turned out to be very nice people. “I was curious if the idea of a relationship through a window was a common one in New York,” she says.

It turned out it was.

The images themselves are striking portraits of city dwellers within their homes, where the architecture is almost more of a character than the people are. Some photos are more zoomed out than others, providing a more sweeping view of the cityscape and the backdrop against which people live out their days. In one photo she took in Venice of a family living in a palatial home right on the canal, you can barely see the people–the grandeur of the architecture dominates. But in a zoomed-in detail, you can see the family doing the most mundane of things: packing boxes to move.

As the series took her from New York to Paris to Buenos Aires and Istanbul, Halaban also began to observe that people had entirely different attitudes toward their neighbors in different cities. In New York, people were relatively open and quick to acknowledge that a voyeuristic relationship existed. In Paris, people were much more hesitant to meet their neighbors. And in Buenos Aires, where there’s a history of government surveillance, people were downright suspicious when Halaban sent her local assistants to ask for permission. They opened up much more when Halaban herself came and explain the project. In Istanbul, people were also reluctant. “People actually wouldn’t knock on their neighbors’ [doors] themselves,” Halaban says. “It was considered very rude. They were very nervous about the idea of barging into someone’s home.”

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[Photo: Gail Albert Halaban]

But when Halaban did the knocking and explained why they were there, people were no longer fearful of offending–and Halaban says their neighbors would invite them in for tea or wine and begin conversations that would last for hours. Some of the neighbors that met each other through the projects have become dear friends; others are simply more neighborly, willing to knock on the door to borrow a cup of sugar.

“It’s more than a photo shoot,” she says. “We always have a glass of wine or a cup of tea after. There’s this real connection that’s happening beyond making a picture.”

Throughout her travels, Halaban has recorded people’s stories about who they imagine their neighbors to be, and now she is working with a writer to turn these stories into a play. She conceptualizes actors telling the stories while the images of the real people behind them act as a backdrop.

In cities where people don’t tend to know those who live around them, Halaban’s project is the perfect excuse to leave the apartment and knock on a stranger’s door.”In this world where we’re connecting with people all over the world virtually, everybody has responded to this project to participate because they do want this face-to-face connection,” she says. “We do want to reclaim the physical connection to our neighbors.”

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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