While the majority of celebrities appear to be participating in social distancing, hidden from infection in the comfort of their Calabasas McMansions, it certainly feels like they’re more in the public eye than ever. That is because they are super bored; and because they are super bored, they’ve chosen to spend their hours on social media like the rest of us. Still, a couple of mask selfies, an ill-thought-out cover of “Imagine,” and shots from the empty toilet paper aisle at the grocery store can only go so far. Bored celebrities make for boring posts. Not only that, but the paparazzi economy that normally fills gossip columns with not-boring photos and videos of celebrities doing stuff has dried up. As it stands, boring is the only option.
Across agencies, it’s clear that photographers in general—both those who work on commission and those who don’t—have lost jobs. When famous people are nowhere to be found in a celebrity industrial complex that’s built around original photography, it’s hard to find the story.
How does a paparazzo work now? And how are they doing...? I contacted a few professionals to weigh in for Jezebel; their responses, below.
Giles Harrison, founder of London Entertainment Group:
The business has changed a lot, but weirdly, it also hasn’t changed that much. At the end of the day, this is a news story. Apart from the fact that our focus, on the day-to-day, is usually the celebrity angle of news, there’s a very legitimate news aspect of this to be covered. We’ve done that. We’re taking pictures of empty streets, people lined up, people with face masks, things like that. There’s a human story angle to it. In terms of celebrities, it’s hard to justify trying to shoot people when they’re going through the same tragedy as the rest of us.
At the moment, there’s no red carpet. There are no movie premieres. You can’t roam around Beverly Hills looking for someone shopping because there’s nobody shopping. It also seems vulturistic to be sitting around, hoping you get someone going to the grocery store. That’s a little bit too much. If someone’s out and about exercising, if I see someone doing that, we might take a picture. We’re not the kind of agency that stands outside someone’s house waiting for something to happen. We’re not about to do it now.
If ever there was a job that lend itself to social distancing, it’s being a paparazzi and now there’s no one really around to be social distancing from. A true paparazzi photographer, if you’re lucky, no one ever knows you did it because you’re nowhere near them. You’re using a long lens, or you’re in the car, most of the time.
The machine is going to slow down. There’s only two places to photograph celebrities on the regular: New York and L.A. And those places are on pretty serious lockdown. A week ago, I would’ve had one answer. Now, it’s completely different. You’ll see less and less, and you’ll see all of the same thing: you’ll see people at the grocery store, or you’ll see them maybe working out. You’re not going to see them do anything more interesting than that. It shows that celebrities are just like us. They’re not above it. It’s an industry that is able to change. Will it bounce back? Yeah, I’m sure it will. People always want celebrity content. People always want to see celebrities. People are always going to be interested. Eventually it will be fine. For now, it’s scary times. But it’s not like 9/11, right?
Stephen Trupp, president of Star Max:
Most of our photographers work on commission, but we do have a handful that work on guarantees, where we pay them a certain amount per month and then we own the rights to those photos. All of those photographers, we had to let go because there’s practically nothing to shoot. All the events have been canceled. All the people, the celebrities who are normally out and about, aren’t out and about. What we’ve been doing is primarily just covering pictures of things as it relates to the coronavirus: stores with big lines, people wearing masks, etc. As far as the celebrity stuff goes, which is our main thing, our bread and butter, we’re pretty much shut down at the moment. We’re using this time to go back to completely working on commission with our photographers because it hasn’t really proved lucrative to pay people a sum up front.
The one fortunate thing about the business is that we do get royalties when we license images, and we have a huge archive. If there are people in the news, like Harvey Weinstein, there’s still people who are interested in those kind of image. As far as new content coming in, there’s been virtually none. Except what you would call C- and D-list celebrities trying to use the coronavirus thing by going out with masks on to try and get some coverage in the media—people like Bai Ling and Phoebe Price, people who aren’t really well known but are always trying to get some sort of media coverage. Outside of that, there has been virtually no celebrity content. People who are really famous, they can get by without some publicity for a few months. The ones who are still trying to make their way into the public eye, trying to do to use this opportunity the best they can. There’s not as much competition, I guess.
If this continues, it’s a double-sided blade: on one hand, if no new images are being produced, the TV shows and magazines have to use what’s already out there to do a story. On the other hand, a lot of our business was about new material and new content of people out and about, kind of current stuff. There’s not much we can do at this point except to ride it out. The other unfortunate thing is that this time of year is usually our busiest time in New York. We just don’t know what the future holds. The biggest event in New York or L.A. is the Met Gala, which is usually held in early May. At this rate, I don’t think that’s even going to happen.
Our business, relative to other businesses, can weather this much better than a restaurant or a retail store. We’re still making some money on commissions, so there’s some money coming—not much, but some—as opposed to having to shut down completely.
Aaron Perez, partner at Bauer-Griffin:
Our industry has taken a big hit from the coronavirus outbreak due to a lack of production. We depend on photography from Red Carpet Premieres, Film Sets, and yes, candid “paparazzi” photos. The bulk of our production comes from shooting photos of celebrities at film premieres, awards shows, film festivals, daily talk shows, and also late night shows. Since celebrities are not flying in or out of LAX—and now that their favorite coffee shops and restaurants have closed down, all that is left is a few sightings on public hiking trails and an occasional shot at a local food truck or grocery store.
As far as social distancing, most paparazzi photographers, as a general rule, have practiced giving celebrities space in the last few years due to industry changes. They use long lenses and tend to give celebrities around 20 feet or more of personal space. Most consumers are unaware that the high-resolution of modern DSLR cameras allow photo editors to give readers the impression that you are up-close and personal with a celebrity. Many photographers shoot photos from inside their cars, and if a celebrity is shopping at a designer store for example, they will shoot from the sidewalk through the giant store windows.
For the last six years, the price-per-photo has dropped significantly, with some publications paying as low as $0.50 per photo due to publishers demanding low-priced subscription deals from big photo suppliers such as Shutterstock. As a result of this race-to-the bottom, no one in this industry has savings and have been working paycheck-to-paycheck for a long time. Now with the coronavirus crisis forcing the shutdown of Hollywood and the surrounding supported businesses, including foodservice and retail, this has resulted in many photographers giving up completely on the industry. They instead are driving for Uber, Postmates, or Grubhub.