Say "Cheese!"

June 15, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

Paparazzi are almost universally despised, and with good reason. The most aggressive of them tend to be an arrogant, opportunistic bunch who enjoy squashing the right to privacy of others by hiding beneath the cloak of "freedom of the press." There's nothing wrong with standing beyond the velvet ropes alongside a red carpet premiere to get a few candid or posed shots, but some of the paparazzi's antics tread into the realm of the terroristic. These have been sufficiently publicized; there's no need to repeat them here. Certainly, the "bad" paparazzi tar the "good" ones with the same ugly brush, but that's what happens when a profession does not police itself.

Of course, the subjects of all those clicking shutters are not entirely without blame, either. Fame comes with a price, and if you're going to pursue the former, you must accept the latter. If you don't like the idea of having pictures taken at inappropriate times, become a doctor or a teacher. If you choose to get into acting, music, modeling, etc. and are lucky enough to hit it big, not all of the consequences are glorious. A certain amount of attention is guaranteed, although the boundaries of propriety are too often crossed. Even the biggest star has the right to sunbathe in her fenced-in backyard without having bikini-clad images of her multiplying all over the Internet the next day. If she goes topless on a public beach, that's fair game, but too many paparazzi don't stop there.

There are some stars who crave the spotlight like a drug. No need to mention any names here, either. They go out of their way to court the photographers, sometimes choosing to go commando with the full knowledge that an upskirt picture is likely to be taken at some time. They're exhibitionists. From time-to-time, one of these spotlight darlings may decide she has had enough. The photographers, once her best friends, have become vultures, picking over the broken and bleeding carcasses of a career. But, once you're in, you can't get out. Those who court the paparazzi need to consider the Faustian bargain they are entering into. It's no coincidence that Lindsay Lohan is followed everywhere while, say, Anna Paquin is largely ignored. Lohan isn't a better or more desirable actress than Paquin, but she has flaunted her fame rather than merely accepting it as a necessary adjunct of acting. Thus, Paquin gets attention when she walks the red carpet, but no one follows her home, climbs a tree, and tries to get a shot of her emerging from the shower.

It would be disingenuous not to mention the real culprit in this entire cycle: us. We, the people, have such an insatiable appetite for gossip and salacious content that we ensure there's money to go around for everyone who snaps a picture that someone might want to see. Once, the word "tabloid" was reserved for publications like The National Enquirer and Star Magazine, with People and Us Weekly treading a razor-thin line between legitimate journalism and that of the yellow sort. Now, the "tabloid" concept has moved far and wide beyond the print world into television and onto the Internet. It saturates. Nothing sells better than sex except sex coupled with sleaze. With hundreds of millions searching for new dirt every day, the money is too good for the paparazzi to pass up taking a risk - sometimes an illegal and immoral one - to get a nice paycheck.

The way to stop the feeding frenzy would be for websites/magazines/T.V. shows to stop paying for images obtained through questionable means, and for viewers to stop looking at such material. Welcome to Utopia. It isn't going to happen. People have an inbred sickness when it comes to suffering. We slow down when passing a car accident, we tune into auto races to see the crashes, we watch hockey games hoping for a fight, and we thrill to distant images of carnage. It is therefore hypocritical of anyone who ever seeks out all ill-gotten paparazzi image to express horror when something happens like what occurred in 1997 to Princess Diana. The photographers chasing her car when it crashed and killed her were after pictures that publications were waiting to pay for. The final responsibility for her death lies with the intoxicated and ultimately incompetent driver, but it is not possible to entirely exonerate the paparazzi and, by extension, those who fuel their photography sprees.

Paparazzi have been around for as long as there have been cameras, but there was a time when an unspoken agreement existed between them and the stars they photographed. Photographers helped build actors like Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, John Wayne, and Marilyn Monroe into bigger-than-life figures. Back in the first half-century (or so) of movies, that was the goal: star-building. At some point, it changed. Now, the goal of tabloids and paparazzi is to first build up the personality then tear it down. Does Tom Cruise deserve a constant stream of negative publicity? That's a debatable subject, but it's clear that Cruise, who was beloved by photographers during his meteoric rise during the 1980s, is now a favorite whipping boy. One can argue that Cruise has "brought it on himself" by injudicious comments and inappropriate actions, but the tabloids have leaped on every misstep with the tenacity of a pit bull tearing into an opponent during a dog fight. Build him up, tear him down. That's the way it is.

I can't say that I never seek out paparazzi snapshots. So ubiquitous are they that they're almost impossible to avoid, but there are times when I gaze at them that I find myself flinching to be part of this unseemly machine. I see now that Britney has gone out in public again without underwear. She's covering her head but leaving other areas wide open. The photographers are there. Will she never learn to stop providing these opportunities? Will we never learn to stop looking for them? No and no. That's the way it goes in the melting pot of fame, where those who dance to close to the flames will get burned. And where we sit eagerly by, waiting for images of the charring.