'We're All Paparazzi': Why We Still Haven't Learned From Diana's Death

The complicated legacy of celebrity culture 20 years after her tragic accident.
Illustration: HuffPost; Photos: Getty

A young woman heads to the gym. Beyond the gates of the private car park where she steps out of her vehicle, you can hear the clicks of cameras stirring in anticipation of getting the money shot ― the one everybody will surely be talking about tomorrow. Instead of putting one foot in front of the other, however, the woman faces away from the cameras. As she walks nearly backward to the entrance of the building, photographers desperately scramble to get another angle, scaling walls with ladders brought for this express purpose. But, they’ve already missed her. She’s outsmarted them.

Still, it’s only a matter of time before she lands in their targets again.

This is a scene familiar to most celebrities today, but the young woman in question isn’t a pop icon, an actress or reality TV star. She’s the princess of Wales.

In the weeks leading up to the 20th anniversary of the death of Diana, her name was sprawled across television screens, news chyrons and magazine covers. She once again became regular fodder for morning talk shows and the subject of an impressive number of documentaries. The madness that surrounded the people’s princess in the 1980s and ’90s was back in fashion.

The particular marriage of patriotism, fairy tale and tragedy surrounding Diana bears no present day comparison. And yet, the paparazzi culture that cut its teeth camping outside her Earls Court apartment has only evolved in the decades since her death. For so long, Diana suffered under the world’s gaze, battling mental health issues and a severe eating disorder in private, while beaming for the cameras. The demand for photos, scoops and exclusives superseded any notion of privacy ― in fact, her private life was what kept the tabloid industry booming at the time. Diana might have been a princess, but she was the paparazzi’s queen.

Celebrities like Taylor Swift, Kim Kardashian and Robert Pattinson have certainly inherited the privacy issues that so plagued Diana, but not to the same extent. Whether you’re a royal or a mailman, everyone is entitled to their privacy. Yet during Diana’s era the paparazzi couldn’t, and never did, understand these boundaries, and it ultimately cost her her life.

This photo was taken in Paris on the night of August 31, 1997, and shows Diana (head turned away in backseat), her bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones (L) and driver Henri Paul shortly before the fatal crash which killed Diana, her companion Dodi Fayed and Paul.
This photo was taken in Paris on the night of August 31, 1997, and shows Diana (head turned away in backseat), her bodyguard Trevor Rees-Jones (L) and driver Henri Paul shortly before the fatal crash which killed Diana, her companion Dodi Fayed and Paul.
Langevin Jacques via Getty Images

On Aug. 31, 1997, Diana tragically died at the age of 36 as a result of injuries sustained in a car crash in the Pont de l’Alma road tunnel in Paris, France. She had just left the Hotel Ritz with her boyfriend, Dodi Fayed, and jumped in a Mercedes driven by the head of security at the hotel, Henri Paul. The couple’s personal bodyguard, Trevor Reese-Jones, was on the passenger side as Diana and Dodi sat in the backseat. Trailed by a swarm of photographers, Paul, who was later found to be drunk, lost control and swerved into the two-lane roadway before colliding head-on with a pillar at an estimated 65 mph. Fayed and Paul died instantly, while Reese-Jones was badly hurt. Diana was alive when paparazzi arrived on the scene ― and she could have perhaps been saved ― but pictures of her injured body were apparently more important than her survival.

“I was horrified, I couldn’t believe it,” royal photographer Kent Gavin, who worked with Diana for over 18 years, told HuffPost of paparazzi snapping pictures instead of immediately calling 911. Ten French men who did opt to photograph the crime scene were immediately arrested and charged, “but they got off with it,” Gavin added, after Paul was found responsible for causing the crash.

“The tragedy was that she was seeing the light at the end of her tunnel,” Andrew Morton, whose authorized biography Diana: Her True Story was recently re-released, told HuffPost, “but that light was the flash of the paparazzi’s light bulbs. And that, in a way, is a metaphor for her life.”

Prince Charles with Lady Sarah Mccorquodale, Lady Jane Fellowes and Prime Minister Tony Blair watching as the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales, is carried from the airplane to a hearse at Raf Northolt.
Prince Charles with Lady Sarah Mccorquodale, Lady Jane Fellowes and Prime Minister Tony Blair watching as the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales, is carried from the airplane to a hearse at Raf Northolt.
Tim Graham via Getty Images

“When I saw the royals standing over the coffin, I nearly welled up and had a lump in my throat thinking, 'How could all of this happen?'”

- Kent Gavin on photographing Diana's coffin arriving from Paris

As the wife of Prince Charles, heir apparent of Queen Elizabeth II, and mother to his successors, William and Harry, Diana was an international phenomenon. Everyone wanted to know what she was doing, what she was wearing, what she was saying and what she was thinking ― day in and day out. After the desolation of her royal marriage in the early ’90s, Diana became even more of a target for paparazzi, who could make a buck snatching photos of her in her most vulnerable states.

Even when Diana was heading to therapy sessions, presumably the most private of outings, she’d be harassed by four or five photographers. “[They would] all be pointing their lenses at her, shouting phrases like, ‘Lift your head up, bitch,’” Morton said. “I mean, it was an extraordinary violation. And she would say to them, ‘Why don’t you go rape somebody else?’ She found it deeply distressing, this kind of intrusion into her life.”

Her children found it distressing, too. Prince William, now a father and husband, remains deeply affected by what his mother faced, explaining in the HBO documentary “Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy,” that men would spit at her and call her names to get a reaction. “I sadly remember most of the time she ever cried about anything was to do with press intrusion,” he said. “Harry and I, we had to live through that.”

Despite stepping away from life as a public figure in 1993, the circumstances around Diana never changed ― actually, they got worse.

“We did everything. I mean, it’s hard to believe now what went on,” paparazzo Mark Saunders says in Smithsonian Channel’s “Diana and the Paparazzi.” “We would hide in the bushes, we’d hide up trees, hide behind cars. The pictures were being taken daily and it was snowballing and it was just getting bigger and bigger and going on and on and on.”

“It was dreadful,” Gavin told HuffPost. Although he was hired by Piers Morgan and The Mirror to photograph Diana for stories, Gavin never respected the independent paparazzi who would swarm her in the streets, at her home or during vacations. “There was a confidence between her and the official photographers that she didn’t have with the paparazzi,” he explained. “It just got so out of hand.”

“She was, for over a decade, the golden goose laying the eggs for newspapers and magazines, not just in Britain but around the world.”

- Andrew Morton on Diana's likability

However, as much as Diana was a victim of the paparazzi’s leering lens, she would have never reached the same level of fame had she not also been willing to sometimes play the game to her benefit. Those who aren’t buying commemorative plates and fawning over the royals tend to be more cynical about the princess’s hand in crafting her own image. Although we can’t be sure that she had photographers on speed dial, it is clear that she was cognizant of her increasingly global reach and the ways the press could be used to better her own life and help others. Whereas a Kim Kardashian might have called photographers early on in her career to establish herself as a fixture of celebrity news, Diana wielded her influence with the public for more altruistic purposes.

After the dissolution of her marriage with Charles, Diana was attempting to move past the drama caused by her personal troubles and looking forward to living a happier life doing what she loved: charity work. She was a true humanitarian and worked closely with organizations involved with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the landmine crisis and cancer research.

“It was a double-edged sword. She came to the determination that if these cameras are going to follow me everywhere then they can follow me to places where I want to go and make a point that people should be paying attention to these problems,” Tom Jennings, the executive producer of National Geographic’s “Diana: In Her Own Words,” told HuffPost. “She became aware of the fact that she could have the press be a part of her journey as she tried to take on humanitarian causes that were being shunned. “

Although there are rumors that Diana herself used the paparazzi to her advantage, Gavin says he doesn’t believe that’s the truth. “We just don’t know the true story about her toward the end with Dodi Fayed, whether she did call a certain photographer or have an Italian paparazzi come photograph her on the boat. That could or could not be true, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be able to possibly comment on that,” he said.

The Princess of Wales in a boat off the coast of the south of France in July 1997, shortly before her death.
The Princess of Wales in a boat off the coast of the south of France in July 1997, shortly before her death.
Anwar Hussein via Getty Images

Despite the seemingly omnipresent nature of the paparazzi at the time, no laws were put in place to protect Diana and those around her from the swarm of flashing lights. This may have led to the unsettling situation surrounding her death, as there were no rules stating the paparazzi couldn’t trail her car or follow her every move. Although the media attempted to change the way photographers pursue celebrities following that tragic event in the summer of 1997, no legitimate law was passed in the U.K. to prevent something similar from happening again.

The U.K.’s Press Complaints Commission, a self-regulatory body that offers a code of conduct for those covering celebrities in the media, added these regulations to their guidelines following Diana’s accident.

i) Journalists and photographers must neither obtain nor seek to obtain information or pictures through intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit. ii) They must not photograph individuals in private places without their consent; must not persist in telephoning, questioning, pursuing or photographing individuals after having been asked to desist; must not remain on their property after having been asked to leave and must not follow them. iii) Editors must ensure that those working for them comply with these requirements and must not publish material from other sources which does not meet these requirements.

Despite these “rules,” the royal family members continue to face intrusion into their personal lives. In 2012, Prince William and Kate Middleton’s privacy was violated when French magazines published photos of the Duchess of Cambridge sunbathing topless while the pair were on vacation in the south of France. In May of this year, the couple sued six men connected to the scandal and are seeking $1.9 million in damages. A spokesperson for St. James Palace said “the incident is reminiscent of the worst excesses of the press and paparazzi during the life of Diana, Princess of Wales, and all the more upsetting to The Duke and Duchess for being so.”

“There’s an agreement now with the royal family that English newspaper and magazine editors won’t touch anything that comes in through the paparazzi,” Gavin explained. “Their market has been reduced practically down to zero in this country.”

Prince William is largely responsible for this shift in how royals are photographed, making it his goal to completely eliminate paparazzi images of his family. In 2015, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge released a long statement on the inappropriate surveillance and harassment of their children and how it would not be tolerated.

We have made the decision to discuss these issues now as the incidents are becoming more frequent and the tactics more alarming,” the statement read, in part. “A line has been crossed and any further escalation in tactics would represent a very real security risk.”

Gavin said that William “will press charges” if a paparazzi image slips through the cracks, which makes photographers less inclined to defiantly pursue the royal family these days. “If [paparazzi] do get caught doing it, there will be severe punishment for them,” Gavin explained, adding that there’s not much profit in it for them anymore. “I have not seen them in operation to any degree now with Kate or the boys that they were with Diana.”

“What she had was unprecedented. I mean, it was just ridiculous; it was a feeding frenzy.”

- Kent Gavin on Diana's experience in the spotlight

In the United States, California passed the nation’s first anti-paparazzi law in 1998, preventing photographers from trespassing on private property. The law was strengthened in 2005 after a clause was added stating that photographers couldn’t make physical contact with their subjects.

Then in 2009, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that would fine photographers for taking photos that invaded a celebrity’s privacy. At the time, Jennifer Aniston, who previously reached a $550,000 settlement with a man accused of distributing photos of the actress sunbathing topless in her backyard, championed this legislation. Another law was passed in 2010 to prevent paparazzi from driving recklessly in pursuit of a photo. It was deemed unconstitutional by a court in 2012, but that ruling was overturned in 2015 and the law is currently in effect.

Perhaps the most successful law to curb the paparazzi’s infringement on the private lives of the rich and famous, however, is Senate Bill 606, sought by celebrities and aimed at protecting their children. In 2013, California’s Gov. Jerry Brown signed the paparazzi bill into law with the backing of some of the industry’s most frequent targets, like celebrity mothers Halle Berry and Jennifer Garner. It became illegal for photographers to attempt to photograph or videotape a child in a harassing manner for the purposes of selling magazines. And yet peddling images of celebrity children ― often referred to as “pedorazzi” ― continued until Kristen Bell picked up the baton a year later. The “Veronica Mars” actress led a boycott of publications sharing photos of celebrities’ children without consent, creating a seismic shift in how we consume and engage with pop culture. Publications like People Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Buzzfeed, Entertainment Tonight and HuffPost heard her call and joined the campaign, shifting the coverage away from the children and back to those who actually chose to be in the spotlight.

“I didn’t think that would have any impact, but I knew that if we didn’t bring the conversation to the consumer we wouldn’t accomplish anything,” Bell told HuffPost earlier this year. “We saw if not all positive feedback, and people started to acknowledge the kind of media they were purchasing and if the pictures they were looking at were procured in a way that was harmful or damaging to children. “

Targeting this part of the paparazzi industry was a cut and dry win, signaling a wind change when it comes to celebrity culture. If the public was open to reconsidering the boundaries around children, then perhaps there was hope for the entire paparazzi industry to evolve, as well. However, despite the laws put in place to protect public figures and their families from the harassment of photographers, the craving for an inside look at the lives of Hollywood’s elite persisted. As a result, certain individuals seemed to never escape the glare of the camera’s lens, whether they liked it or not.

Princess Diana, on the day of her divorce from the Prince of Wales was announced, with a policeman holding back a photographer.
Princess Diana, on the day of her divorce from the Prince of Wales was announced, with a policeman holding back a photographer.
Martin Godwin via Getty Images

If we were to trace the impact of Diana’s legacy and the burden of constant public attention to present day, you’d eventually end up at the front door of some Kardashian’s Calabasas mansion. Although they might like to think of themselves as modern American royalty, the fervor that a KarJenner stirs in the hearts and minds doesn’t hold a candle to Diana. And yet by comparing the Princess of Wales to, let’s say, a princess of social media, it’s more than evident that although the legal protections in the years since her death are notable, our culture still has a long way to go when it comes to respecting the boundaries of those who require it.

Diana might be hailed as the most photographed woman in the world, but Kim Kardashian is likely the most photographed woman on the internet. There’s no definitive means of determining either (could you imagine counting the selfies?), but Kardashian and socialites before her, like Paris Hilton, see themselves in the legacy of a beautiful young woman plucked from semi-obscurity and dropped into the limelight.

“Diana represented something far beyond what most celebrities represent to people today, so I think that’s why she captivates us and why her story is that much more sad.”

- Tom Jennings of "Diana: In Her Own Words"

As different as their stories may be, Kardashian faces a similar battle to the one Diana experienced. While the depths of sympathy for a public figure of the same ilk are shallow — how can anybody feel bad for Kim Kardashian — fame, fortune or royalty should never rob us of our compassion. Perhaps no incident better speaks to this disconnect than the robbery that took place at the reality star’s Parisian apartment in October. Kardashian was held at gunpoint by masked men who took the hotel’s concierge as hostage to gain entry into her room before stealing millions of dollars’ worth of jewelry. The beauty mogul has since recounted the ordeal on the family’s reality TV show, “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” explaining that she not only feared for her life, but believed she was going to be raped by the assailants.

And yet days after the news broke, reports claiming Kardashian faked the incident or invited danger with her ostentatious displays of wealth on social media made the internet rounds. Our initial response wasn’t one of sympathy but skepticism, with many believing that one cannot simultaneously exist in the public eye and be the object of human empathy.

“It really is hard when people sometimes don’t treat you like you’re human and you’re going through such a real, raw experience. It’s really traumatizing,” Kardashian said about those doubting the veracity of her story. “I even saw a comment where someone wished I died that night. What evil of a person are you that you would really wish death upon someone? It just really sucks when you’re getting judged by the whole world.”

Kim Kardashian leaving her hotel causing a chaotic crowd of fans and paparazzi in 2010.
Kim Kardashian leaving her hotel causing a chaotic crowd of fans and paparazzi in 2010.
Philip Ramey Photography, LLC via Getty Images

But remember, whereas Diana had to go to the local newsstand to see private moments splashed on magazine covers, a public figure like Kardashian needs only to turn on her phone. Although laws put in place have bettered the lives of those in the spotlight, no one could have expected the technological developments in the last decade to both advance and further problematize how we consume celebrity media.

“The only thing I feel sorry for with the modern day celebrities is social media,” Gavin said. “Everybody has an iPhone, and now the public is clicking away.”

Celebrities like Robert Pattinson and Selena Gomez have not taken kindly to this new type of public judgement. Both have been golden tickets for the paparazzi and adoring, phone-equipped fans, and both have tried their best to avoid being harassed and hunted down like animals. Pattinson himself constantly throws on a sort of disguise when he goes out in public, hiding behind sunglasses and a hat to escape the glare of the camera’s lens. He’s gone so far as to change clothes with his friends, request multiple Ubers and hide away in trunks to throw off his scent.

Pattinson’s “Twilight” fame catapulted him to a new level of notoriety and changed his public existence forever. He refers to paparazzi as “losers trying to do their jobs,” telling GQ in August that he can’t live his life if someone is constantly observing it.

Robert Pattinson during a photocall at the 65th Cannes Film Festival.
Robert Pattinson during a photocall at the 65th Cannes Film Festival.
VALERY HACHE via Getty Images

A young woman exits the gym. Back turned toward the cameras looming up above, she leaves a workout class through a side entrance to avoid the likely crowd of onlookers who’ve gathered out front. Instead of paparazzi climbing ladders for the perfect shot, the people angling for a photo are fans with iPhones. She walks sideways, turning her face away from the photographers before a large black Escalade whisks her away. She not only has to fret about her picture ending up in print, but splashed across social media feeds and the internet.

This time, however, she’s not a princess, but a pop star fiercely protective of her image.

It’s easy to villainize the paparazzi as the big bad wolf, intruding on private moments of public figures, but it’s harder to point the finger at ourselves as we post, like and share away. While platforms including Instagram and Twitter allow famous types to control their own narrative per se ― stars often shut down false rumors and stories on social media ― they also embolden the consumer with the power to bypass the traditional notion of paparazzi altogether and capture these moments themselves.

Yes, times have changed in the years since our world lost Diana, but instead of internalizing the damage wrought by the relentless media during her era, we have yet to fully acknowledge the role we all play in the cat-and-mouse game of celebrity. Our culture not only still accepts it, but has moved along to newer horizons. Fans who once passively gobbled up tabloid imagery from the confines of their homes, or screamed for an autograph behind a horde of equally hungry photographers, are now on the front lines of celebrity surveillance. Mobile devices are, after all, more common than your average DSLR. It’s easier to pull out an iPhone and snap 360 degrees of a famous person at brunch than it is to conceal the nostalgic flash of a camera’s bulb.

“We’re all paparazzi,” Morton stated. “Paparazzi will continue and they’ll just change shape – their shape-shifters. Going from the long lens in the ’50s and ’60s to the camera phone in the 2000s and now the drone.”

The Princess of Wales being mobbed by photographers and well-wishers as she leaves the Royal College of Nursing in London's Cavendish Square with her friend Catherine Soames (right) after attending a launch of the Child Bereavment Trust in 1994.
The Princess of Wales being mobbed by photographers and well-wishers as she leaves the Royal College of Nursing in London's Cavendish Square with her friend Catherine Soames (right) after attending a launch of the Child Bereavment Trust in 1994.
PA Wire/PA Images
Taylor Swift takes selfies with fans during the 2015 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 17, 2015, in Las Vegas.
Taylor Swift takes selfies with fans during the 2015 Billboard Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on May 17, 2015, in Las Vegas.
Michael Buckner/BMA2015 via Getty Images

We might not be buying tabloids anymore, or financially supporting the paparazzi industry that came to be the villains in Princess Diana’s short story. But, with Instagram accounts at the ready, ‘hearts’ and comments dolled out quicker than you can snap a photo, are we still feeding the beast? And more than that, are we so lacking in empathy that we can’t see the effects of our actions? Whether we’re scrolling through never-ending fan feeds or posting the images ourselves, can we not see the real, living, breathing people in front of us? Or are we resigned to the idea that fame means losing any semblance of privacy?

Memorializing Diana’s death 20 years later serves many purposes, but perhaps a lesson should be to critically examine the hunger that drives us to check celebrities’ Instagram pages, follow them down the street, sneer when they triumph and cheer when they fail. Who knows how Princess Diana would have navigated this new landscape had she survived? But judging by her years of suffering at the hands of press and the public, one thing’s for sure: She would have wanted us to do better.

Andrew Morton’s book, Diana: Her True Story, has been reissued for its 25th anniversary. Kent Gavin appears in Smithsonian Channel’s “Diana and the Paparazzi,” airing Aug. 31 at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. And Tom Jennings’ National Geographic documentary, “Diana In Her Own Words,” is now on demand.

Edited by Katherine Brooks.


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