International Photographer
September 1998

Who's Zooming Who? The Paparazzi Problem

by Kathleen Fairweather

Because of the recent events surrounding the death of Princess Diana, the mere mention of the word ‘paparazzi ’usually brings forth a dramatic response from people: most of which are unprintable. Today’s paparazzi are about as beloved as the IRS and both are viewed as necessary evils and a scourge on our society.

Which came first: the celebrity or the paparazzi? As long as there have been public figures, there has been somebody to bring them to the public eye. Initially, this ‘need to know’ from a voyeuristic populace was filled by more traditional newspaper outlets. Today’s media universe is much more vast and now includes television, cable magazines, and a wide variety of of print and electronic tabloids. Not to mention, computer media such as the Internet

We are now also bombarded by catchy “info-tainment” segments masquerading as news, and tabloid TV shows. Would the paparazzi exist without our star-hungry society? Or, more importantly, would the paparazzi be driven to mass invasions of personal privacy of public personae without the big bucks incentives.

Who gets hurt in this celebrity photo gold mine? Besides the star’s themselves, legitimate journalists are also painted by this same brush--including the unit photographers, who for the most part, have been single-handedly fending off the paparazzi themselves at the set while on duty for the studio.

While the paparazzi problem is everywhere, according to most unit photographers, nowhere in the world is it more vexing or challenging than in New York. Barry Wetcher, a set photographer who works in New York explains that in New York the paparazzi have every legal right to be there, especially on a public site. “The only time we can have them removed,” he says, “ is if they are trespassing on a closed set. The paparazzi in New York know the laws better than anyone else. Now they carry video cameras and deliberately incite confrontations on the set to record for sale, or, to use as evidence in lawsuits against the studios.”

Wetcher notes that in his 18 years of unit photography experience he has learned to just ignore the paparazzi. “These people thrive on confrontation,” he explains. “They are pushy, aggressive, and they believe they have a right to be there. A lot of them aren’t even professional photographers, but they know that a shot of a major star like Brad Pitt will sell for big bucks--no matter how bad it looks.”

Wetcher acknowledges that in an odd way, they do serve a purpose for the studios. “Any publicity is still good publicity for a film. Especially when it’s free publicity. The paparazzi don’t have to get photo approval like we do, so they get immediate sales, publication, and gratification.”

Wetcher compares set work in New York to the working conditions on the West Coast . “In California, the streets are blocked off with policemen guarding the sets. We don’t have that kind of support here. The film industry is so much bigger out west, and there is more support for the profession of film production. The biggest problem for us in New York is sheer numbers of the paparazzi. Fifteen years ago, there were maybe one or two hanging around on the shoot. Now, there’s sometimes 50 guys at any one location.

Wetcher reports that at times they so intrusive on the set that they become a big distraction to the actors. “They cause big scenes and conflicts with the assistant directors, and than the police end up involved.
Some of the paparazzi are IA members, themselves. I think it’s a bad reflection on the union. It makes us all look bad when you have a member disrupting the movie making process.”

Veteran unit photographer Phillip Caruso concurs with Wetcher's experience, “I have been an IA member since 1984, and have shot all over the country and internationally, New York is definitely the hardest to deal with in terms of the paparazzi. They come on the set and stand right next to the camera dolly, or right by me. No actor wants to work with them around. It’s intrusive and invasive. I have learned to live with it, but I have seen others get physically upset. Some set photographers have walked out in frustration.”

Caruso also has another issue with the paparazzi, “They are really taking income away from me,” he explains. “The studios keep our material, and the paparazzi walk out with the same shots to sell before ours are even released to the media. The magazines know that they don’t have to wait because they can get those shots from someone else. I try to brush it off, but at the same time, it’s frustrating. No one else on the set has somebody in their job capacity showing up from off of the streets. For example, you don’t have another grip, or director photography walking onto the set saying I’m here to help whether you want me or not. That wouldn’t be tolerated. I feel that no one supports me as a still photographer.“

“One time,” Caruso recalls with a wry chuckle, “ I set up an exclusive still shoot inside a closed set. I called all the news agencies to give them exclusive rights to these photos, for free! You know what they told me? “NO THANKS! We don’t buy from anyone we don’t know. It makes you wonder if there’s some kind of kickback to this.”

Caruso admits the challenges are greater in New York, but there are also paparazzi problems abroad. “They are more brazen and aggressive in Europe.” They are also more creative according to Caruso who recalls an incident in Dublin Ireland on the set of Far And Away with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

“People were hanging around the set constantly. On one particular scene we closed off three entire blocks for a period shoot. I shot the stills, and the next day those same photos were in the London Times-- in a two page special. How could this happen?”

“Director Ron Howard and I tried to re-create the shots to see how they did it. I figured out the angle of their photos, which were practically identical to mine, and I traced the angle back. Sure enough, two feet off the ground, inside a building with the windows painted over, on a closed set, some one had scraped the paint off of the window. This spot was exactly the same size as a camera lens and they just hid inside the building and took those shots. You just have to laugh it off.” Caruso also explains that they are cagier in Europe, because unlike New York, the paparazzi have no rights. “The police will come in Europe, and throw them off the set.”
Most productions keep their set days under wraps. How then, do the paparazzi find these productions? In the past they could call the New York Film Permit Office and request the information-- which was public at that time. Now, because of the concern over lawsuits, they no longer give out that information to the public.

Caruso has his own theory, “The paparazzi must have a relationship with the production manager. How the hell do they know where to show up? Especially on a remote location. Half the time the crew doesn’t even get that information, especially if it’s a last minute change. But there the paparazzi are-- on the set.”

“I’ve heard the paparazzi offer money to the P.A.’s and the A.D.’s.” says unit photographer Marsha Blackburn. “They may have the right to be on a public street, but they don’t have the right to disrupt a set. There must have been 20 of them at least, on the set of The Out Of Towners. It unnerves the actors. Both Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin were practically stalked by them during our entire shoot. It’s so unfair, especially when they sell unflattering pictures to the rags. It just cheapens my job.”

Blackburn describes a recent tabloid publication of a very unflattering photo of Hawn. “The caption reads, “Poor Goldie, she fights to save her fading beauty.” Says Blackburn of the aftermath, “It really hurt her feelings, and it makes me feel very uncomfortable. The paparazzi should know better themselves, especially the union members. I understand one of the paparazzi was a former set photographer himself.”

Blackburn cannot understand why the paparazzi are tolerated on the sets in New York. “Everybody’s sick of it,” she says. “They are everywhere. One day, we were on 67th street in New York. It was cold and windy, Everyone was miserable. The caterers put out our lunch, and there the paparazzi were, helping themselves to our food! I can’t even put down my own camera on the job and eat because I’m so busy, but they think they can do whatever they want!”

Blackburn also describes an incident that occurred on the shoot in front of Abe’s Deli. “A woman with a video camera kept walking back and forth on the shoot. We asked her to leave, and she called the police. They are always looking for lawsuits, too. They are big opportunists. When a big light stand fell down, I actually heard one say that he wished he’d been under it, because it would’ve been a great lawsuit.”

Blackburn explains her frustrations by this problem. “Our hands are tied on the sets because of this lawsuit potential. Although, I have seen D.P’s get in fights with them when they push too far. One time there was a shouting match between a D.P and a paparazzi. The A.D. was so upset she poured water on the guy. Unfortunately, she missed and got the boom man. Another time, during a shoot at Times Square, one of our P.A’s was physically pushed by a paparazzi. Everybody was very upset about this incident.”

Blackburn believes that the paparazzi industry is driven by money and the public’s insatiable appetite for celebrity news. “I don’t know what the answer is. I’ve heard that photos of major stars like Steve Martin can easily fetch $10,000. The hardest thing for me is when a magazine won’t print my photos sent by the studios because the paparazzi got there first. Even worse is when someone calls and says they saw one of my photos in People Magazine, and it turns out to be one of the paparazzi photos from my shoot. It may be free publicity, but the quality and integrity is missing.”

It may take an act of Congress to change this, and it could actually happen with the support from the Capitol. A recent Los Angeles Times story revealed that Congress is now considering three paparazzi bills that would make it a federal crime for a photographer to endanger anyone’s safety to obtain a photograph or video for sale.

Previous attempts to legislate this have failed, allegedly as violations of the First Amendment right to free press. One obvious irony to all of this is the notion that stars complain about the very fame they seek.

Television and film star Michael J. Fox who appeared before the House Judiciary Committee responded to this criticism, “I work very hard to entertain an audience and when they enjoy my work I am deeply gratified. But, I strongly disagree with those who would argue that some kind of Faustian bargain has been struck whereby public figures are fair game, any time, any place.”