I’ve been a news photographer for nearly twenty years and during that time I’ve covered hundreds, if not thousands of stories that have appeared in tabloid newspapers and magazines around the world.
I’m British and have been living and working in Los Angeles, USA for the past four and a half years.
Like many news photographers out there my work consists of a healthy mix of celebrities. I recently covered Prince Harry’s time in the USA, plenty of showbiz like the Beckhams for example, the death of Michael Jackson and hard news including the earthquakes in Haiti and Japan.
My career came out of an equal passion for photography and news. When I quit the security of a steady job as an electronic sales engineer back in the early 1990′s and handed back the company car, tie and pension, I knew I was following the right path for me. It was more of a calling than a job.
It didn’t take for me long to realise which photographs would pay the highest bounty. A front page in the Times or Telegraph would pay maybe £500 if I was lucky, where-as a front page and a double page spread inside a red top tabloid or a glossy showbiz magazine would pay ten times that amount. It doesn’t take a business genius to realise which photos I should be chasing.
I quickly became a regular shifter at many of the national Daily and Sunday papers, including the Daily Mail, The News of the World and the Sun and in 2000 I set up an agency, First News, where I had a number of photographers working for me.
As a photographer or agency boss you have to balance your output between work you are passionate about and work that pays the bills.
Jobs like catching James Boffey, a banned driver from Liverpool, getting back behind the wheel of his car after killing a cyclist, made the front page of the Daily Mail. It gave me great satisfaction actually nailing the scroat, but hardly paid a fortune. Or spending £2000 of my own money to investigate and photograph victims of people trafficking in Romania, a feature that never sold.
I’d worked on a number of stories in the USA and always felt I’d like to live there. In 2007 I got my visa and moved to Los Angeles where I joined a celebrity news agency.
In early 2008 some news organizations focused their attention on me. Whilst working for the agency I took the decision to quit my job as I felt uneasy about the constant and reckless pursuit of the singer Britney Spears. At the time Spears appeared to be going through some kind of mental breakdown, shaving her head, driving on high speed late night runs through the Hollywood Hills, hotly pursued by the paparazzi. I felt it could end in the death of Spears.
There was no story, the paparazzi’s pursuit of Spears became the story.
The competition for the latest set of photographs of Britney was very hot, with hundreds of thousands of dollars being paid for a great exclusive. The paparazzi were ruthless. It wasn’t unknown for the paps to drive on the wrong side of the street and jump red lights. Stories of paps having their tyres slashed and cars attacked by the competition were not uncommon.
I stepped away from this madness.
I stepped away because like most news photographers out there whether working for a tabloid, or a broadsheet, like any sane person I looked at the actions of the paps and felt this clearly was not news photography. Someone was going to die.
Don’t get me wrong, I still cover celebrity news stories and photograph them on a regular basis, but there are ways of doing things. I don’t hound them with a short zoom lens twelve inches from their nose. I don’t chase them, jumping red lights and driving on the wrong side of the road, like a pack of hounds hunting a fox. The public have a huge appetite for celebrity news and photographs, this will never change, you only need to look at any newsstand to see that vast numbers of glossy magazines fighting for the hard earned cash of its readers. Not to mention the thousands of celebrity websites that are now financially trying to justify their existence.
I’ve watched with interest the Leveson Inquiry and the blanket condemnation of all tabloid news photographers. The news photographers have had no opportunity to reply to the allegations cast upon them.
Like many genuine news photographers out there I’ve been offended by many of the allegations levelled at us during the inquiry, often by people who fight for exposure within every column inch they can get.
In the world of news photography there are a small element who take unreasonable steps to obtain a sellable photograph. Sometimes attempting to incite a reaction in their subject, other times pursuing the subject relentlessly without a news agenda, just in hope getting a sellable frame and earn some money from that days snapping. There are of course a number of agencies that encourage this, their only concern is to get a photograph that sells.
A clear distinction must be made between this group and the large majority of news photographers. We do not spit on subjects, bang on their cars, approach their children, jump red lights, chase at high speed or manipulate photographs. We are there as impartial observers to observe and record in a dignified manner and in a manner that no reasonable celebrity or member of the public could have an issue with.
What is equally concerning is how the industry itself doesn’t differentiate between the good the bad and the ugly. How many times do we see TV images of the paparazzi, as they always call us, chasing a celebrity? Let’s not forget that the reason we are seeing those TV images is because the TV camera was plotted beside us and to see a broadsheet this week use a photograph of what is clearly a designated press pen and refer to the photographers inside it as paparazzi, it would appear we need to enlighten even our own picture desks as to what a paparazzi is.
The work of the ruthless paparazzi and the agencies that encourage their behaviour, in order to maximize their income must be condemned. And the work of many hundreds of responsible news photographers must be recognized as work far removed from the small minority.
Nick Stern is a freelance news photographer, based in Los Angeles, USA and member of The British Press Photographer’s Association.