"He comes out at eight," Wagner says. It's 7:45 am on Friday, and we're part of a small group gathered across the street from the apartment building where Michael Douglas lives. Everyone is a paparazzo except for me.
I'd been trying to shadow a paparazzo for a while, to get a behind-the-scenes look at the juggernaut of today's "celebrity" industry. When it comes to celebrity "news," more and more, paparazzi pictures — a candid image of a celebrity doing something — are all the "news" consists of. But how much do we know about where these images come from?
A rep for from Pacific Coast News — an agency we use often — suggested a freelancer named Wagner. I tried to find him during the summer, but he was in Seaside Heights on the "Snooki beat." Once he returned from Jersey, it took us some time to pick a date that would work for both of us. But he told me that he spends the day on his bike, and that if I had one, too, I could follow him.
So Friday I woke up at 5:30 am, walked the dog, took a shower, put my crappy Huffy on the D train and arrived (early) at the designated location, across the street from where Michael Douglas was expected to emerge and walk his daughter to a black SUV that would take her to school. When I showed up there were already three other guys with big backpacks hanging around the location. Paparazzi. Men of varying ages, in the same kind of purposely nondescript clothing: jeans, or black t-shirts, hats or baseball caps. Easy to blend in. Easy to forget.
When Wagner shows up he emanates energy. He's 32, Brazilian, brown-eyed, stubble-faced. Compact, quick to smile, bouncy, restless. He shakes hands with the other guys assembled; as I'll see throughout the day, there's a camaraderie and brotherhood amongst the paparazzi. As he shows me his camera and tells me it is worth $6,000, a woman with a kid in a stroller asks, "Who are you guys waiting for?" She seems to have noticed that seven or eight dudes with long-lensed photographic devices have gathered in one spot. "Nobody," says Wagner, and after she's gone he shows me the duct tape wrapped around his lens, on which the word "nobody" has been written in Sharpie. "So no one can identify you," I say. He nods. "Who is that? It's nobody. I'm nobody, I work for nobody."
Wagner starts talking to a fellow snapper, who asks if he heard about the fight last night. "The Kardashians," the guy explains. "Fighting in some club. It was so fake. The bouncer says there's a fight, and then the girls come out, all dramatic, and then Scott comes out talking loud…" The guy rolls his eyes. Suddenly a black SUV pulls up in front of Douglas's building, and all the guys take their cameras out. They hustle across the street, staying behind the car — and at the end of the property line. The doorman pretends not to notice and waves to a maintenance man opening the door of a church further down the block. A moment passes. People walk by. Cars driving by slow down, to see what's happening. But nothing is happening. The paparazzi are poised, in position, waiting. The doorman is waiting. I'm across the street. Waiting.
After another moment, a woman who must be a nanny and a little girl come out of the building and walk less than 20 feet to the waiting car. I see one or two of the photographers snap her picture, but Wagner is already putting his camera back in his backpack and bounding across the street towards me. "He's not coming out," he says. "I think he had his last treatment yesterday, so maybe he's resting. Let's go." He eyes the car, which is pulling away, and the other guys as they disperse. It's becoming understood: no Michael Douglas today.
"Sarah Jessica Parker takes her kid to school at 8:30, so we have to rush downtown," Wagner says. We both get on our bikes. Another guy, older, joins us. We carry the bikes down the subway stairs, into the B train, down to West 4th street, up the stairs and pedal through the quiet, leafy streets of the West Village. A different corner, same story: Three or four guys with backpacks are already there, and after the three of us — Wagner, the older guy and I arrive — a couple more photographers materialize. Some of them I recognize from the Michael Douglas stakeout; some of them are new to me. We wait.
"How do you know she's going to come out?" I ask Wagner. Surely it could just as well be a nanny, or Matthew Broderick.
"She almost always walks her kid to school," Wagner says. "And she went to a party last night. When her hair is done the night before, she always comes out the next morning." I laugh but he stresses that this is an absolute fact. "She's going to come out of there" — he points — "and walk down the block, turn the corner, walk down that block, make a right, go down the block and across the street. Always the same." He tells me that she walks slowly, and that I can follow on my bike. As we wait, David Byrne bikes by. One or two heads turn, but no one takes his picture.
Moments later, SJP and James Wilkie emerge from a brownstone; she walks exactly the way Wagner said she would. What happens is far from the nightmarish chaos of the infamous Kate Moss airport video. SJP and her son walk, slowly, and four or five other guys — keeping about 50 feet away — walk backwards in front of her. As she gets closer, they run farther away, and when she crosses 7th avenue, they're already on that side of the street. Maybe it's because Wagner told me what would happen, but I'm struck by the quiet non-drama of it. The whole thing lasts less than five minutes, and besides James Wilkie's soft murmuring to his mother, no one says a word; it's like watching a staged dance. That is, except, for one old lady on a corner, who says, in a very loud and very nasal voice as we pass, "Look at this! She can't even walk her kid to school!" Other than that, it's a surreal but relatively hushed moment, and as I wait for Wagner to come back to the corner where we'd parked our bikes, I watch all the people and cars passing by, unaware as to what kind of weirdness just happened.
And a video I shot from my bike. Yes, that tiny tiny person is Sarah Jessica Parker.
Here's what Wagner got.
A few hours later, we ran a picture from that walk to school on this website.
"Let's go see about the Kardashians," Wagner says when we're both back on our bikes. We head down to Tribeca, squinting in the sun. It is already a gorgeous day. "Perfect for riding around," I comment, and he agrees: Not hot, not cold, not raining.
Outside the hotel in which the Kardashians are staying there is nothing going on. Wagner recognizes some production vehicles from their show, but shakes his head. "They don't start til 11," he says. "And since they went out last night…" He turns around; there's a Starbucks on the corner. "I'll upload some pictures." We go inside, he sets up his camera and his laptop, and within moments the photographs of Sarah Jessica Parker are on the agency website.
Wagner gets a percentage of the sales, but isn't too excited with what he has. "[SJP] wears the same thing everyday," he says. "On purpose. Because you talk about this today, then she wears it tomorrow, then what do you have to say? Nothing." He checks his BlackBerry. He's constantly getting messages from other photographers around the city. So-and-so is at Regis and Kelly. Someone else is outside the Today show. "Maybe we can find Naomi Watts," he suggests, and we're on the bikes again. He talks fast, rides fast, keeps his eyes and head moving, noticing SUVs and some store having an opening with free booze. "Let me see," he says, jumping off his bike and checking out the situation. There's champagne, but no celebrities, and he's back on his bike.
We stop on a corner across the street from where Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber live. Wagner gets a bagel and a Coke, and I ask him who he likes to shoot. "Katie Holmes and Suri," he says. "Katie is nice, and Suri — she always sells." He doesn't like Sienna Miller because she yells and swears and makes a scene. He tells me about the time he was shooting pictures of Kate Hudson on a film set, when Mike Myers came by and thought he was the one the paparazzi wanted. "There was a fight," he says nonchalantly, "I got four stitches. My picture was in the Daily News!" He laughs.
"What would be the best picture — money-wise — that you could get?" I ask.
"Angelina and Brad. With the kids. They sell, sell sell. And next would be Jennifer Aniston with a new guy."
He tells me he really liked being in Seaside Heights taking pictures of the Jersey Shore cast. "Snooki is funny! And you know, they go out late. Don't get up early. So I could get up, go to the beach. I'm Brazilian! Go to the beach, start working 11, 12. And then they go out at night and I put my camera away and I go out at night. It was fun!" Just then he stops. "Oh shit."
I look across the street at what has caught his eye: Liev Schreiber, with a small blonde boy on his shoulders. Just strolling.
"Shit shit shit." Wagner jumps on his bike and follows Schreiber, who turns the corner and goes into the subway. Wagner starts locking up his bike, and I can tell that he's going to follow.
"You go," I say. I actually feel terrible that he may have missed a shot, and that I am clearly slowing him down. He disappears into the subway. I wait for a few minutes, wondering if he's going to come back up, but it becomes clear that he's gone wherever Liev has gone. Wagner calls 20 minutes later and tells me he's on his way back downtown; we meet on a corner in SoHo. Wagner tells me that inside of the train station, he put his camera away and chatted with Liev a little, then said, "You know, I gotta get a picture of you." Liev said sure, put the kid on his shoulders and let Wagner snap away. "He was cool," Wagner says. And of course, this is a big deal: No other photographers were around, so it's an exclusive shot, and it's not the same old strolling down the street picture, either.
There's a movie starring Jason Statham supposedly filming on the Lower East Side, so we roll over there next. But once we're on Ludlow street, we find out — from flyers posted — that shooting starts in the evening. Wagner's phone goes off. Sarah Jessica Parker is coming out of her house in a different outfit. "I gotta fly," he says, already pedaling away. "I'll meet you when you're done," I say. It's not even 11am, and I'm exhausted and can barely keep up with him. I go to the office, check email, and Wagner calls to say he missed SJP. He couldn't make it in time. But the Kardashians should be ready soon. So it's back down to Tribeca.
There are a few other photographers in front of the hotel, and one young man with three roses. A fan. We have no idea how long it will be before a Kardashian emerges. "It could be hours," Wagner says. Then he informs me that an associate has spotted Naomi Watts in Soho with the kids. "I already shot Liev, but Naomi is better," he says as he's rushing away. By the time I process what's happening, he's gone. It's just me and Brian and some other paps, waiting for the Kardashians.
Hours pass. The photographers chat. One Brazilian guy says to a tall black guy, "Did you see the fight last night? Was that real?" The black guy answers with a question: "What is real?" Everyone laughs. I leave Brian, go home, eat a sandwich, come back. Brian informs me that Khloe came out while I was gone, and he gave her a rose, but she was "standoffish." Wagner has returned; he only got a "couple" of shots of Naomi, because she asked him not to shoot. It's unclear what a "couple" is, since he can shoot 10 frames a second. The rest of the afternoon is spent hanging around the hotel. Front entrance, side entrance. There's a flurry of activity when word gets out that Scott and Kourtney are eating in the restaurant attached to the lobby. Two hotel security guards stand in front of the windows so that Wagner and the seven or eight photogs who have assembled can't get a shot, but Wagner manages to get a few anyway.
I hang back while the guys do what they do, noticing that there is one singular female paparazzo. She disappears before I can try and talk to her. Wagner comes over to me, cursing. "Right after the guard moved us out of the way, they kissed," he fumes, referring to Scott and Kourtney. "I said, my friend, I know you are doing your job. But you have no idea how much you doing your job just cost me."
At 3pm, we try to see if there's any action at Dash, the store the Kardashians are opening in Soho. Guys are filming other guys moving boxes into the storefront, but that's about it. No actual Kardashians out in the wild. But there's a moment — when a camera shines a light on a large box and follows it as someone carries it into the store — when people gather. Tourists, mostly. And you can see, in their faces, a curiosity: What's so special about that box? The terrible truth, of course, is that there is nothing special about the box.
At this point, it's 4pm. It's been a long day, and although Wagner is committed to getting a shot of the Kardashians, I'm done. On my way home, I think about the box that caused a crowd. We're interested in celebrity minutiae. Despite ourselves. It is possible to be fascinated and repulsed at the same time. You can find celebrities appealing while finding the gossip culture appalling. We buy the magazines, hate them for lying to us, critique them, laugh at them, talk about them with our friends and buy the magazines again the next week. If you've ever read a gossip site or flipped through a celebrity weekly, you're part of the system: the paparazzi take pictures for the mags and blogs, the mags and blogs exist because there is an audience.
After spending a day seeing how the Snap Judgment sausage gets made, I couldn't help but feel for Wagner. He went to FIT and started out as a fashion photographer, but fashion is a fickle business, there aren't as many magazines as there used to be, and being a paparazzo pays. Wagner seems like a nice guy; it doesn't seem fair, really to fault him for making money off of someone else's existence. There are, without doubt, paparazzi who are assholes. Just as there are stockbrokers who are assholes, teachers who are assholes and doctors who are assholes. But when it comes right down to it, it's a job we've created. If people didn't want to see how Michael Douglas is doing as he battles cancer, magazines and newspapers wouldn't publish pictures, and there wouldn't be a posse of paps in front of his building every morning. If people weren't crazy for pictures of celebs doing regular parent stuff with their kids, Wagner wouldn't follow Liev Schreiber into the subway. And maybe some fucked-up shit happens, illegal stuff, stuff that should be illegal, or just chaos. But not always. And, like Wagner told me, when it comes to celebrities, the way the paparazzi see it, "It's like putting a hundred dollar bill down on a table. Of course it's just crazy — everybody wants that."
Later Wagner told me it was ten o'clock before he finally stopped shooting and went home on Friday. He worked 7:45 am to 10pm, and spent most of it waiting and biking, not shooting. I asked him if that was good day, a bad day, or just a normal day. "A normal day. It was good, but nothing really great," he said. He told me he doesn't even know how much money he earned from those photographs: "I never know how much I make. I have no idea. It takes me three months to know what I sold."
And what about people who hear the word "paparazzi" and instantly think negative thoughts?
They don't know what they're talking about… Everybody reads the news. They open the newspaper and they see a picture of a celebrity over there and they think this is a professional photographer who is doing this kind of job and we are doing the bad stuff. But everybody wants to know if Sarah Jessica Parker is married, or if she has a son — the only way they know is through a picture. Most of the people who talk about [paparazzi] don't even know what they're saying — they trash your work without knowing. I don't really care. It doesn't really bother me. You see how I talk on the street — when somebody comes to talk to me — asking who am I waiting for, who am I looking at — I don't say nothing, I don't even look at their face.
In the end, we talk about the most obvious issue of all: How he would feel if the tables were turned. "All the waiting, for six hours, to see if they're going to come out of their house…" I can hear the shrug in his voice. "There is a point, that I would say, it would bother me, if I was a celebrity. I don't know, I'm not a celebrity. But I know I don't hurt anybody, you know? I go there, I take my photo, I go home."
[Celebrity images by Wagner Az via Pacific Coast News Online.]