In another of our occasional series of guest posts Max Cisotti CEO at Xclusivepix.com. A hugely experienced agent and photographer, he has allowed us to re-post something that he wrote around the time of the Leveson Inquiry about who and what the paparazzi are and about the symbiotic relationship between good photographers and the celebrity industry.
I believe that as an almost accidental byproduct of the Leveson Inquiry into criminal wrong-doing by other elements of the press, I and my colleagues have been utterly traduced, painted as morally unscrupulous scavengers feeding on unsuspecting celebrities.
With the odd exception – and no profession is perfect – I simply don’t recognise this description. In private, I am bound together with the same celebrities that in public complain about us, all part of the complex modern marketing dance. Paparazzi are not parasites living off the famous, but both essential to each other. We are not the buzzing insects that the film director Fellini named us after, although as a fan of La Dolce Vita I suppose I should be flattered that my job is named after a character in such an iconic movie.
I became a paparazzo because it was more exciting than news journalism. You start out by waiting outside restaurants and clubs. In my day – and I’m no longer a full time photographer – it would be San Lorenzo or The Ivy. No one famous goes to these places without expecting and hoping that they will be photo- graphed. There are thousands of restaurants in London where you’d never find a photographer, so you only go to the few that do have them if you are in search of the spotlight.
But there are still examples of hypocrisy. Just before Kate Middleton’s wedding, her mother and sister had lunch at San Lorenzo. Three photographers were having a sandwich out- side and saw them go in. When they left, they walked a few yards down the street and into Bruce Oldfield, where they were obviously discussing dresses for the wedding. They could be easily seen through the window and some pictures were taken. The Middletons then made a huge fuss about their privacy being invaded, but honestly they almost went out of their way to be recognized and followed.
The next stage of the journey to becoming a paparazzo is building contacts. If you stand outside anywhere long enough and you are pleasant enough you build up a relationship. Myself and a few other colleagues, we wore out the pavement outside San Lorenzo. So we did build up a relationship with the restaurant. That’s the first step to building your network of informants.
Then you need to learn to fit in. I always tell my photographers, be as smart as you possibly can. Some years ago I was photographing the Spice Girls outside Dolce and Gabbana in Sloane Street. They came over to talk to me and told me how well I scrubbed up. I’ve chatted to Victoria Beckham on other occasions too, and my relationship with most celebrities was positive and not at all antagonistic. You become part of their landscape and they don’t mind at all.
Paparazzi are not parasites living off the famous, but both essential to each other.
Of course, in the evening, getting photographs outside the clubs, it can be a bit of a scrum, but that’s largely for technical reasons. With flash photography at night, you have to get very close to someone to be sure of a decent photograph, which makes it look a lot more aggressive and nasty than it is.
Of course there are occasions when you don’t want to be seen by the celebrity and they don’t want to see you. The public want to see famous people behaving naturally, to have the illusion that they have a window on their lives, that they are not just posing for the camera, and that’s the reason for most of the long lens work, so that they don’t change their behaviour. Of course, it could be that they are having an affair or have something else to hide, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.
If the photograph is taken on public property, then it’s fair game. If you are on private property then we’ll walk away.
That’s also the appeal of holiday photos, partly it’s seeing good looking people in a bikini, but also the public want to see them in their natural state, it’s a similar sense to seeing animals in a zoo or on safari. All famous people know the deal, and if they don’t want to be photographed with their kit off, then they don’t go topless.
Of course I feel sorry for Kate and William, and I would never have taken those pictures as they were clearly somewhere where they had a reasonable expectation of privacy, which is the hurdle we have to jump in Britain. But honestly, they must know that there are photographers everywhere and as we can see there are always going to be media outlets somewhere in the world that will publish photographs even if they are an obvious invasion of privacy.
Most celebrities, however, are more likely to invade their own privacy than have someone else do it for them. About 40 per cent of apparently snatched paparazzi photographs are actually setups, organised through an agent or sometimes directly with the celebs themselves, a process that in America they call mockerrazzi. It’s partly about marketing – they’ve got a new car for free and need to promote it, they have a film coming out and so on.
And in part it’s about money, the photographers will share the proceeds with the subjects. I’ve often done this, even with major A-list celebs, and the money can run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. It’s a major source of income and everyone is a winner. Not that this is a new concept, it was invented by the Hollywood studios with Clark Gable and Rudolf Valentino in the Twenties and Thirties.
Now there are celebrities who from time to time don’t want any coverage. But when I listened to Hugh Grant’s testimony to the Leveson Inquiry, I’m afraid I did think he was a hypocrite. Here is someone who became famous for what his girlfriend was wearing at the premiere of a film, then a few years later was arrested with a prostitute in Los Angeles. Now today he’s more than happy to talk about his private life when it suits him, but not when it doesn’t. But I don’t see why the media should only cover the famous when given permission to do so.
I’m often asked what my ethical red lines are, as a photographer. Everyone in the industry will give you a different answer, but I have always abided, even before the Press Complaints Commission existed, but the rule of reasonable expectation of privacy. If the photograph is taken on public property, then its fair game. If you are on private property then we’ll walk away. And sometimes you just know that a photograph, even in a public place, is unfair.
Perhaps the single most traumatic moment for my profession was the death of Diana, paparazzi were blamed for her death at the time and her sons still blame us.
My business partner and I were in Hyde Park some years ago, we’d had a tip that Lady Helen Taylor was regularly taking her kids to and we’d been waiting there for three days. Then there she was, pushing her youngest in a pram when she hit a pothole and the child fell on the pavement and cut its head. We could have sold the photographs for ten of thousands of pounds but it wouldn’t have been right, we both just looked at each other and walked away.
The profession is changing, however, and not always for the better. There are far more photographers than there used to be. I remember travelling to Los Angeles in the late Nineties, and there were only 20-30 photographers covering the entire area. We went one day to Malibu and there were so many many celebs I didn’t know which way to turn – should I shoot Cindy Crawford or Rod Steiger first? People were making fortunes, but now the market has changed completely, there are something like 3oo-400 photographers covering the la area and competiton is intense.
Partly, it’s about technology. Back then, you actually had to know what you were doing with a camera. And it was much more expensive, because you had to buy and develop the film. Today really good digital cameras have made the process much more accessible, anyone can get one and set themselves up as a paparazzo. I think we should consider making some kind of training compulsory – as in Italy and France – before you can get a press card.
The other big change, of course, is the market. There are many more outlets, both online and in print, for celebrity photographs. When I began, there were just the papers, then there was Hello magazine, and now there are around ten weekly women’s celebrity magazines in the uk alone.
But that doesn’t mean that we are all making more money, because not only are there more photographers out there working, but celebrities now often publish candid photographs of themselves on Twitter.
This summer, Rihanna was touring the Mediterranean with friends on a yacht, they went to Sardinia and St Tropez, and of course they were followed by photographers, but she also posted lots of her own photos on Twitter, and when the Daily Mirror published a spread on her, they used her photos, not the paps’ shots. It kept their costs down, and of course she had chosen the photographs that they used.
Perhaps the single most traumatic moment for my profession was the death of Diana. Paparazzi were blamed for her death at the time and hers sons still blame us. And there is no doubt that she was hounded by photographers, but no one forced her to speed through a tunnel without wearing a seat belt, and she was staying at The Ritz where she could expect to be followed when she left. I think time has given us more of a perspective on what happened.
At that moment, however, it looked like my profession was finished. For three to four months, newspapers didn’t publish a single paparazzi photograph. But then the News of the World, may it rest in peace, broke the taboo, and we all went back to where we had been before. Which was a relief for us of course, but also for the celebrities who hadn’t been getting the coverage they were used to.
Now something similar is happening again in Britain, as a result of the Leveson Inquiry. Newspapers are buying far fewer celebrity photographs, and the price for those that are bought has fallen as well.
I do feel some resentment about this. My business has suffered because of a limited amount of illegal activity by people I had no connection with at all. Now this inquiry does seem like a sledgehammer to crack a nut – after all, there haven’t been similar inquiries into far greater disasters like the banking crash.
Unfortunately, my profession has done a bad job of representing itself to Lord Leveson, so much so that I doubt he has a clue how our business works. The trouble is we are so fragmented, with lots of small companies, agencies and freelance photographers.
Almost by definition, paparazzi are not joiners, not mainstream, most of us have thrived in the profession because we like working alone or with a very limited number of partners. So we haven’t managed to put across our viewpoint at all. So I’d like to suggest that Lord Leveson, and anyone else inclined to judge the paparazzi, consider the complex media ecosystem he is attempting to reform, and ensure that if he is going to try to wreck our livelihood, he does us the credit of trying to understand it first.