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The Paparazzi Business

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Three Stages of Paparazzi

Since the coining of the term paparazzi in 1960 (Paparazzo was the name of a news photographer in the Italian film La Dolce Vita), the paparazzi industry has gone through three overlapping stages.

In the first, paparazzi were lone freelance photographers like Ron Galella. The job was both esteemed and despised. Men like Galella, who says that he considered Jackie Onassis both his favorite subject and his girlfriend, established the sleazy reputation of paparazzi. At the same time, his photos have become iconic, and a number of art museums have hosted exhibits of Galella’s photographs. 

Paparazzi do still operate as freelancers, selling photographs to gossip rags and mainstream media alike, although there are now so many that it’s nearly impossible to achieve the fame of their forebearers like Galella and Rino Barillari. A Times article puts the price for an average photo at several hundred dollars, with an especially productive paparazzi earning $10,000 a month. One paparazzo, who tells Forbes that photographers usually lowball their earnings to dissuade amateurs from competing with them, says $60,000 to $100,000 is a typical annual salary for professionals. Of course most of the men -- they are almost all men -- are motivated by the possibility of a six or seven figure photo like Britney shaving her head or Kate Middleton sunbathing topless. 

The profession has not gotten more professional. The same Times piece relates how L.A. paparazzi go by strange names “like the Fingerbreaker and Cheesecake.” Sienna Miller’s experience shows that the rhetoric of respecting celebrities is mostly fiction, and many paparazzi misogynistically refer to the practice of celebrities facilitating photos by the sexually suggestive phrase “giving it up.” 

These freelancers work, however, in an environment dominated by a few paparazzi agencies that hire small armies of “shooters” or “paps.” The largest is X17, which according to Samuels in The Atlantic, pays around 70 shooters $800 to $3,000 a week and an occasional bonus. The shooters will never have a museum exhibition; most are low-income, often immigrants, who shoot with cheap cameras.

Today we’re seeing the beginning of a third stage in the paparazzi business, in which hired photographers are less necessary as smartphone cameras turn everyone, even the stars, into paparazzi. Many agencies now have online submission forms that allow anyone who bumps into someone famous and takes a picture to get paid for it. Especially for online content, many entertainment publications simply grab pictures taken of celebrities from social media, including pictures that famous people themselves post on Instagram. This is likely done illegally -- whoever posts a photo on Instagram or Facebook retains the copyright -- yet “stories” about Kim Kardashian’s latest activities pull from her Instagram, and mainstream press has taken from social media when an unknown individual is suddenly part of a major story.

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