Recently on the train ride home, we overheard two men discussing the trials and travails of their work day. The men, both carrying camera equipment, bemoaned the people who objected to their line of work. "Then don't buy the magazines!" the men groused. It wasn't difficult to put two and two together: These men were paparazzi.
The previous day, a paparazzo had been killed near Justin Bieber's vehicle in L.A., and celebrities like Miley Cyrus were making statements against the intrusive nature of these photographers. But the paparazzi on the train had a point: There's a demand for the photographs, as is evidenced by the sheer amount of tabloid magazines available in any supermarket, yet we vilify the men and women who are just doing their jobs. So who's right?
The term paparazzi was coined in the 1960 Federico Fellini film "La Dolce Vita." One of his characters was named "Paparazzo," which is an Italian word used to describe the annoying sound made by a buzzing mosquito. The word itself is pejorative, and these photographers have been stereotyped as being aggressive and intrusive. The most notorious example of paparazzi badgering celebrities is, of course, the case of Princess Diana, who died in a Paris car crash that was blamed in part on paparazzi.
We interviewed two photographers to get their take on the role that photographers play in modern culture. Jennifer Graylock, a professional photographer who has been in the business for more than 20 years, was quick to point out that there is a difference between red carpet photographers and paparazzi.
The main disparity, she said, is that red carpet photographers are credentialed and are invited to photograph events. Paparazzi, on the other hand, are not invited and generally shoot their subjects on the street without consent. There is a difference in decorum as well: Red carpet photographers maintain a respectful distance, whereas paparazzi are known to "get in the celebrity's face without any respect for the celebrity's personal space," Graylock said. The paparazzi do the chasing and the stakeouts that result in Britney Spears-like meltdowns, she added.
These days, it seems like stars have less and less personal space. But is it manufactured by the celebrities and their handlers to further their own publicity? A celebrity like Jackie Onassis or Princess Diana would never "plan" shoots, telling photographers where they'd be to ensure photos. But Graylock told us that current celebrities will stage paparazzi shoots to garner publicity for their upcoming projects, or even to promote a certain brand of clothing.
"I've been hired by celebrities and businesses to do fake paparazzi shoots," she said. "For instance, a celebrity will have a certain piece of clothing and the publicist wants the shot of the celeb in the clothing, but not on a typical red carpet." Stars will even go so far as to bring photographers on vacation with them, she added. Their reasoning is that rather than be hounded, they invite the photographer to join them, and then they get a cut of the money that the photographs generate.
The stakeouts and high-speed chases that paparazzi are notorious for sound despicable, but there is a market for these photos. If people didn't read the magazines or didn't care about celebrities, there wouldn't be a demand, and the paparazzi may disappear.
We spoke to Lawrence Schwartzwald, a photographer who has been in the business since 1993. His breakthrough was one of the first shots of Madonna's daughter, Lourdes. Schwartzwald was walking home to the Upper West Side past the superstar's building when he spotted Lourdes' nanny holding her and looking out the window. He hid behind a tree and snapped a photo. We asked if he felt guilty about intruding into a private moment and he replied, "They were at the window and everyone on the street was looking at them. I wouldn't shoot into their home. I don't feel guilty about taking a picture of something that is visible for all the world to see."
It's clear that the industry has changed in the 20 years that both Graylock and Schwartzwald have been working in it. For one, there are many more photographers than there used to be, thanks to the ease of shooting digitally. As a result, the rates that photographers charge have gone way down, and by the time magazines run the pictures, they have often already hit the Internet. Paparazzi are more frenzied than ever to get a great shot, and the more experienced photographers complain of a "dumbing down of the business, where the pursued celebrities are famous for being famous."
It is a vicious cycle. Celebrities want publicity and press, and many of them have opened their lives to the public with social media and reality TV shows. The public has gotten used to this unprecedented access into celebrities' private lives, and the appetite only continues to grow, thus feeding the desire for photos that paparazzi can provide. So where does it end? The men on the train are right: If people want to end the intrusive behavior of the paparazzi, they should stop purchasing the magazines that feature their work. But will that ever happen? Doubtful.