Briefing: A swarm of paparazzi

Why are some photographers called paparazzi? The term has its origins in the 1960 Fellini film 'La Dolce Vita,' which featured an unsavory photographer named Paparazzo

Celebrities have long been hounded by photographers, but in the age of Britney, Lindsay, and Paris, the hunt has escalated into blood sport. Why have the paparazzi become so aggressive?

Why are some photographers called paparazzi?

The term has its origins in the 1960 Fellini film La Dolce Vita, which featured an unsavory photographer named Paparazzo—a dialect word for an irksome, buzzing mosquito. For decades, a few dozen paparazzi have made a living swarming around A-list hotspots in Los Angeles, New York, and London, waiting for a big star to show up. They then sell their photos—the more candid and embarrassing, the better—to supermarket tabloids, celebrity magazines, and photo agencies. But as the market for celebrity photos has exploded over the past decade, a more aggressive subset, known as “stalkerazzi,” has evolved. They hunt the famous wherever they go, by foot, by car, and even by helicopter. After Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in 1997 while being chased by paparazzi, there were calls for new laws to bar such pursuits. But the outcry faded, and since then, the paparazzi have gotten even more aggressive.

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What tactics do they use?

Paparazzi work a lot like private detectives, developing a network of informants, and plotting out the day-to-day movements of their quarry. One paparazzo posed as a relative of Michael Douglas to gain access to the hospital at which his son was born. Another camped out near Jennifer Aniston’s home and used a telephoto lens to shoot pictures through her window, capturing a topless shot. Now that their aggressive tactics have gotten them barred from the clubs and restaurants that the rich and famous frequent, paparazzi have been known to set off fire alarms to force an evacuation to the street, where they can photograph their targets. Paparazzi also have taken to pursuing celebrities in cars, whether they’re having a night out on the town or headed to the supermarket.

How common are such chases?

In the last few years, there have been dozens of incidents. Lindsay Lohan suffered cuts and bruises when a paparazzo crashed into her car after she made a sudden U-turn. Scarlett Johansson sideswiped another car while fleeing swarms of paparazzi who had chased her for an hour. A paparazzo intentionally bumped into Catherine Zeta-Jones to force her out of her vehicle. Just last month, four paparazzi were arrested and charged with reckless driving while chasing Britney Spears.

Why is the paparazzi corps growing?

It’s a simple matter of supply and demand. Celebrity-oriented magazines such as People and Us Weekly are more popular than ever, while newer gossip Web sites such as are drawing millions of users. These gossip-hungry publications get larger audiences when they can deliver, say, a photo of a drunken Lohan or the first picture showing Angelina Jolie looking pregnant. As a result, paparazzi can charge more for such photos, and the promise of riches has attracted more people to the field. Ten years ago, there were a handful of celebrity photo agencies in L.A. and about 25 paparazzi trolling the streets. Today, there are about 200 paparazzi in L.A. and dozens more in New York.

How much do they charge?

A garden-variety picture of Jerry Seinfeld sipping a latte at Starbucks may sell for a few hundred dollars. But a worldwide exclusive of a huge star in the right circumstances can yield tens of thousands of dollars or more. A shot of Lohan passed out in her car after leaving a bar went for $100,000. Paris Hilton’s 2006 arrest (in handcuffs) sold for $150,000. Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck’s first kiss captured on film went for $300,000. Britney Spears images are now in such demand that she has fueled an entire cottage industry.

Is there anything wrong with all this?

Aside from the obvious moral issues, there is a legitimate public-safety concern. As paparazzi chases through the streets of Los Angeles become more common, police say both the pursuers and pursued tend to ignore speed limits and other traffic laws—risking not only their own lives but also those of innocent bystanders. Citing safety, Hollywood actors are lobbying for laws barring paparazzi from following them around. But paparazzi say the safety issue is a smokescreen, and that celebrities simply resent that other people get to make money off their images. “They say it’s safety, but the real reason is they want to have control,” says Randy Bauer, who owns a celebrity photo agency in L.A. “They figure if they are going to have their face out there, they want a piece of the action.”

Shouldn’t stars control their own images?

The courts have repeatedly held that public figures have a very limited right to privacy. So once celebrities venture out into public, free-press guarantees make it perfectly legal for photographers to take their picture. “If you’re getting paid $20 million a movie,” says Us Weekly editor in chief Janice Min, “you have to accept the fact that you’re a public commodity.” Still, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy for celebrities who cannot pick up their kids at school, or run out for a quart of milk in their sweatpants, without being swarmed by paparazzi shouting insults and hunting for the least flattering image. “They want incendiary reactions,” says publicist Michael Levine, who has represented Demi Moore and other stars. “Why be a real journalist when you can call Alec Baldwin a moron and get a good photo of him smashing your head?”

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