“I’m your biggest fan/I’ll follow you until you love me,” sang Lady Gaga, making us all think about the outsized role paparazzi have to play in today’s media landscape. Flick through any weekly gossip mag and it's chockers with stories of celebrities doing ordinary things, seeming to be arguing with their spouses, not looking as perfect as they do in professional glamour shoots when they’re actually posing and made up instead of grabbing a smoothie on their day off, and occasionally sunbathing topless. It’s enough to make you not want to be famous at all, especially if you’re going through an obesity crisis or being a love rat. But how did celebrity photographers become the villains of the piece?
Well, by becoming villains.
The avoidable death of Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed in 1997 is a massive cultural touchstone, one of those where-were-you-when-you-heard moments, and it happened partially because their limousine driver was speeding away from photographers looking for the perfect shot.
It wasn’t the first time their aggressive behaviour had led to tragedy, and it certainly wasn’t the last (as a circa-2007 motorbike-riding George Clooney will tell you) but it was a watershed moment for the media world. The second half of 1997 was filled with editorials and think pieces discussing the right to privacy and whether things had gone too far.
In their defence, the paparazzi-fuelled media industry claimed there was a market for this material and they were simply supplying that market. To which Paul McDermott memorably rebutted on Good News Week, “There used to be a market for slaves. And there’s still a market for child pornography! Why can’t Woman’s Day get a piece of that action? I’ll tell you why – because there are laws against it, that’s why!”
Tabloid journalism was at fever pitch in 1997, and the competition was becoming more and more intense as photographers competed to get the best shots then sell them to magazines in the UK and around the world as quickly as possible. Photo editors drove up prices in fierce bidding wars between rival magazines (sometimes within the same publishing companies) and readers responded by buying the publications with the most scandalous scoops.
With so much at stake, of course freelance paparazzi were going to take risks and push the envelope of acceptable behaviour. This was their bread and butter... and that’s still true today, 20 years on, if you look at which articles get the most traffic on gossip mag websites. You can’t condemn the photographers if you’re hitting that clickbait.
Was it always this way? Certainly the origin of the term isn’t flattering, coming as it does from Fellini’s 1960 film, La Dolce Vita, where news photographer Paparazzo is named for the sound of an annoying, buzzing insect. And there are plenty of examples of celebrities from Jackie Onassis to Kanye West smashing the equipment or bodies of photographers who were annoying them. Of course, there’s a huge distance between irritating people who don’t want their photo taken and inadvertently causing vehicular manslaughter...
In the interests of balance, it’s important to remember there’s often a symbiotic relationship between celebs and snappers. The photographers definitely overstate this relationship, but there are times when famous people have their own reasons for wanting to look hot and happy (to make an ex jealous) or just be seen out and about (to raise their profile). But then, you know, Britney Spears probably didn’t ask for her shaved-head umbrella rampage to be captured on film for posterity.
Also, while we’re on the topic, the rise of Instagram has been a massive game-changer, as celebs take control of their own image – and provide mags/websites with what’s essentially free content – meaning “gotcha!” photos of famous people looking "curvy", tired or cheat-y are often the only ones that really sell.
In recent years, the UK media have made a collective agreement not to publish photos of the British blue bloods in exchange for approved photo shoots from Buckingham Palace (and other royal residences). Of course, this arrangement hasn’t stopped Australian publications from running shots of, say, William and Kate on a Seychelles honeymoon. Which means that even if UK magazines have agreed not to run said material, British photographers are under the correct impression that there’s a dollar to be made.
Diana and the Paparazzi airs Sunday 27 August at 7:30pm on SBS.