BY CHERYL TAY
Paparazzi — an Italian word that refers to photographers who stalk prominent people such as celebrities and politicians.
Usually kept at arm's length and treated with disdain by celebs and newsmakers, without their courage and their resilience, the world would lose much of the gossip, secrets and inside scoops that makes news.
Take for example the recent topless photos of Kate Middleton. But such incidents only reinforce the misconception of paparazzi — that they are out to get bad shots, said a US-based former paparazzo (singular form of paparazzi) whom Yahoo! Singapore spoke to recently.
"One misconception that people tend to have of paparazzi is that they are looking for shots of prominent people doing bad things," said the 28-year-old freelance photographer based in Los Angeles, who left the trade after making enough money to pursue his passion in sports photography.
"Actually, those shots don't sell because you are hurting them. What really sells and what paparazzi looks for are happy shots of them enjoying life and doing normal things. Shots that earn most money are such everyday life shots. When you shoot them doing bad things you end up getting into trouble. You don't get shots of bad things to get famous," he shared.
For example, there was once a shot of the daughter of singer Lionel Richie, Nicole, surfing and over a period of two months the total sales collected from that one shot amounted to over US$200,000.
On another occasion when Britney Spears shaved her head, one exclusive single picture of that could have earned US$5,000.
Paparazzi typically work on a freelance basis and hawk their photos to various media or photo agencies, who in turn will supply them to entertainment media or outlets.
According to him, the top paparazzi earn enough to live a lifestyle just like the celebrities.
They drive the same types of cars, live in the same types of houses, go to the same parties and some of them end up befriending the celebrities, giving them access to more exclusive shots which will fetch more money.
The general perception is that paparazzi are looking for that one money shot, but that's far from the truth, says this photographer.
Money shots depend on luck and paparazzi who earn a lot of money are those who produce good shots over time. They then build a good archive which can keep re-selling, averaging to a substantial monthly income of five to low six figures.
In this tell-all interview, the former paparazzo revealed more ins and outs of being in the trade.
Q: Why did you quit the trade?
I was a paparazzo for two years. The main reason I left was because it was really hard on my body and the hours were really long and I was just not very happy because I would always work nights and we would be up every single night chasing people I don't care about. They were just dollar signs to me.
But once I saved up enough to pay off all my equipment and car and be completely be out of debt; that's when I quit and realised that I could fully pursue something else, not having to worry about bills or whatever.
In your time as paparazzi, who are some of the celebs you've shot?
A: Michael Jackson before he died, Angelina Jolie, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Victoria Beckham, Miley Cyrus, Halle Berry, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Aniston and many more. I didn't shoot for magazines directly, but my photos were sold to agencies and then the agencies sold them to major publications around the world.
Q: How do you know where to find them?
A: Most of the time, the agencies will provide us with very reliable information from insiders who are working directly with the celeb.
Q: Do you shoot from the shadows or just go up to them and take pictures?
A: We usually work in teams so that we can cover the different exits of one place. For my team, we were always very cordial with the celebs and we ask for permission if we are within earshot. 90 per cent of the time they will agree because if they are out, they want to be seen, especially if they are in the three-mile zone of Hollywood.
Another way is to shoot without showing our faces, shooting far enough so we don't intrude. They don't know we are there and we basically stay out of their way.
Q: Did you ever get starstruck?
A: My very first paparazzi assignment was of Jessica Simpson and I didn't get starstruck but more like I got a shock at how the industry worked and how crazy the paparazzi can get trying to get their shots.
Q: It must be tough sometimes with many people rushing to get the same shot.
A: Yes, one thing I learned from being out on the streets is to tape up my camera gear so it doesn't get scratched or damaged. Camera gear can get damaged during all the pushing and shoving.
There was once when I was shooting Britney and I cut the queue to get in front. I wasn't in anyone's way, but this large Brazilian paparazzo picked me up by my neck with one hand and moved me to the back.
Q: Ever talked to any of the celebs?
A: Some are very nice, like Tom Cruise who will always talk, and also Paris Hilton. People tend to have the perception that celebs get completely annoyed while we are snapping away but what people don't realise is that half the paparazzi are shooting videos so they have to talk to the celebrities and ask questions. Most of the time, they do get responses.
Q: Rudest encounters with celebrities?
A: The rudest and most arrogant I encountered were Tobey McGuire and Seal. Tobey always tries to run the paparazzi over with his car by just driving his car into them, while Seal always argues with and yells at paparazzi, calling them names.
Q: Any funny anecdotes?
A: Once when we were trying to shoot Leonardo DiCaprio with his date, he ran off and left his date by herself.
Q: What are your working hours like?
A: My team was on night shift, so usually we will camp from about dinner time to about 3am. I do special assignments in the day too.
Q: What was the longest waiting time for any one shot?
A: I once waited eight hours for Jessica Alba.
Q: Ever failed to get a shot?
A: It's demoralising when you have to wait so long for a shot and end up not getting any. There are so many variables and only your experience can push it to your favour. It could be anything — equipment failure, the celebs going out another door by the back. There's never really a way to predict where the shot is going to be.
It happens all the time, where we might go a week without getting a story or a good shot. But then again, the concentration of stars is so high in Hollywood so there were instances when we were waiting for Celebrity A when Celebrity B walks into the frame unplanned. On a good day, we can see up to 20 celebs within an eight-hour work period.
Q: What are the dangers? Have you gotten injured? How do you protect yourself?
A: My team had many large African-Americans who would watch my back and fight for me. Because we were on the night shift, the places we camped at were usually the clubs and bars. All these drunk people randomly come out of these drinking holes and are always looking for a fight for some reason, while we are just there waiting. Sometimes they end up hitting the paparazzi or smashing their cameras. What I do is to carry spray-able tear gas to defend myself against drunk people.
Q: What was your best-selling shot?
A: For me, my most popular shot was one of Britney which sold for US$2,500. Over time that shot alone got me US$10,000 in total.