Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Dark art of covert photography

A journalist has asked photographers on a closed forum I read for opinions and information about covert photography, typically of celebrities. This is my figurative ten cents worth:

As a photojournalist I covered the entertainment industry both in the USA and UK from 1997 to 2005. Believe me when I started I was never asked to 'pap' anyone but the basic format of my working day evolved from being invited to red carpet events and photo-ops to become entirely the covert doorstepping of celebrities as the market for any other kind of entertainment news images gradually dried up. There are lots of reasons for this and Steve Granitz is one of them.

I'm not bitter and not ashamed of anything I've done (those stories out there in cyberspace are fabricated by the same people who write about celebrities) but I am certainly glad I don't have to constantly negotiate my ethical standards against my editors' any more. More than one agency and I fell out (and for that reason I never work other than as an employee) because they could not rely on me to do whatever it takes to follow someone down Mulholland Drive with twenty other paps in tow.

Following someone when they become distressed (and some celebrities will just ignore it) is stepping over the line and only acceptable if it is in the public interest. No one would have any concerns if the press followed a suspected criminal. But if you think about it, given the amount of drugs and drink-driving that Hollywood gets up to, there are many instances when following a celebrity driving a car could be in the public interest.

Although they often interfere with innocent people, I don't accept that the paps can be blamed if someone drives too fast and crashes because there's a photographer in a car behind them. If you think you're being followed, you should drive to a police station and call 911 or 999. I've seen many celebs do it. Fact is, the French paparazzi knew exactly where Princess Diana and Dodi were going. Photographers were already at their destination. Henri Paul had no reasonable fear to justify driving too fast while drunk. It was ego, apparently Dodi's, that drove them into that pillar.

Long-lens covert photography is a valid form of news gathering which is extremely difficult and time consuming (so very expensive) to do whilst avoiding detection. In countless cases, the media have uncovered or prevented serious crimes by this kind of covert investigation but I don't see as much done now as I used to. These days publishers prefer news agencies come to them with a story rather than sponsor their own investigations. It leaves them blameless if it goes wrong or doesn't yield results. Also, so called anti-terror legislation gives the UK police powers to detain and remove as evidence any data cards or journalist notes or any 'document' merely by saying they have "reasonable suspicions" it may be connected to terrorism. Thus anyone who might be in the vicinity to legitimately report on say an animal rights protest can be (and has been) treated as a criminal. Their data, images, notes can be copied and held as evidence. The Counter Terrorism Bill (Amended) as passed by Parliament on 11th June 2008 completely overrides the 1984 PACE protections and will force the media into being spies for the state.

I have been working in and out of journalism since 1979. In that time, there's been great reduction in prospects for anyone wanting a career as a news photographer. The present generation of school and college leavers are finding that decent staff jobs (requiring a high standard of ethics and professionalism) are non-existent as every paper now relies practically entirely on freelancers/chancers and photo agencies (who also rely on freelancers).

With the equipment now cheaper, the bar to enter photojournalism has been lowered which I think is a good thing, the problem is there is hardly anywhere to move up to in the profession now. Several of my pap ex-associates are award winning photographers but they can't get a job solely shooting 'hard' news (as there aren't any) and gratefully take the assignments their employers give them and do that to the best of their ability.

In the last few years there has been tremendous consolidation amongst photos agencies and stagnation in wages and space rates are the same today as in the 1980's. Very few agencies are profitable and some are failing. The only kind of news images anyone might pay decent money for now are exclusive and salacious celebrity photos and this market is becoming saturated. The social contract that once existed between the old-school Hollywood press pack and the stars has been broken. The paparazzi have become their own worst enemy and now vigilantes can attack them with impunity.

There's lots more to rant about:

As a journalist, I argued in vain to my editors that the entertainment industry proper should have more media scrutiny and investigative reporting but the LA Times, Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter are generally submissive to the studios who pay their wages with full page ads fawning and bragging to each other. If only there had been a few paps hiding in the bushes during the 'Twilight Zone' accident, then the film from the stills photographer on set could not have been suppressed.

Paparazzi photography is just a form of entertainment. It should be considered just another medium like theatre, movies or games. It barely qualifies as news and is mostly staged in some respects the subjects are usually complicit including, oh heresy, Princess Diana. My experience is that some kind of insider supplied information is a factor in 99% of 'paparazzi' photos. The problem is for nearly everyone is that a responsible photojournalist is indistinguishable from a paparazzi. Requiring a press card to take a photo is a restriction on civil liberties. The paps are a handy scapegoat and a convenient excuse to restrict investigative journalism.

If you consider all the 'crimes' of the paparazzi of late in Los Angeles, there is already effective legislation in place covering harassment, trespass and traffic laws to prosecute them. If you want to kill off the paparazzi, just cut off the air supply. Don't buy Heat, People, Closer or any other such magazines. Don't log onto Perez or TMZ.

Would you like to read 'nice' respectful journals that treat celebrities as the kind, sensitive and self-effacing people they really are and only publishes photos of them at their airbrushed best with signed model releases? Can you live without a regular vicarious celebrity tragedy fix? No, I thought not. No publishers find it worthwhile to hold our masters to account when we'd rather watch the clowns provided for our diversion.

If the LAPD or Sheriff's Dept. want to do something about the paps, I'd suggest they just check the tax, license and auto insurance and very likely the immigration status of any goatee wearing twenty-something male loitering with a long lens outside the Malibu Starbucks. Perhaps not, we don't want them back here in the UK unless they can give our politicians and their sponsors the kind of scrutiny celebrities have. The lengths MPs have tried to hide the kind of perks they get lately shows there's a lot they'd rather wish we didn't know but have every right to know.

Digital technology now makes it easier but the so called anti-terror laws are making it harder. I think the further development and convergence of hi-definition video/stills is going to make things very interesting. I suspect that is why our politicians are so keen to restrict photography and why it must be resisted. The specious argument used on the public about CCTV and surveillance in general; "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" should be applied to our masters as well.

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