The Paparazzi Plague
No major celebrity can avoid them. Emerging from cars, entering glittering parties or trying to take a secluded vacation, the glamor figures of the '90s are hounded mercilessly by the men - and a few women - who wield long lenses and a brazen shamelessness. Movie stars have punched them, sued them and urged boycotts of their work. But the aggression level of the world's paparazzi just seems to reach new intensity with every celebrity sighting. In an eerie foreshadow of the Paris tragedy that claimed Diana, Princess of Wales, last week, action superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria Shriver, were trapped in their Mercedes-Benz in Santa Monica, Calif., last May between two cars piloted by paparazzi. Two photographers were charged with false imprisonment in connection with the incident. In pursuit of a quick snap and an even quicker buck, no behavior seemed too offensive, no tactics too shocking - until the death of Diana and her newly revealed love, Dodi Al Fayed, in a high-speed car crash while being pursued by photographers on motorcycles. Last week, amid the chorus of denunciations of paparazzi and the editors who buy their work, there were calls for more control on their methods, especially in Britain.
It will not be easy. As Diana's unending exposure showed, catering to the public's fascination with royalty is immensely lucrative. "They never left her alone," said freelance photographer Mike Lawn, formerly a royal photographer for the now-defunct British newspaper Today. "They do it for money, money, money. It's the great incentive to lose all their principles." In Britain and Western Europe, it is not unusual for a photographer to be paid $20,000, $40,000 or more for a single photograph. The figure can skyrocket when the content is as sensational - to tabloid newspaper editors - as the blurry shots of Diana and Al Fayed kissing on his yacht in the Mediterranean. Britain's Daily Mirror paid $450,000 for the British rights alone. The pictures reportedly earned photographer Mario Brenna $7 million worldwide. According to Steve Coz, editor of the Lantana, Fla.-based National Enquirer, sources he did not name were last week hoping to reap $1 million (U.S.) in worldwide sales for pictures of Diana trapped in the smashed car. Showing unusual decorum, Coz said the Enquirer had refused to buy them and urged the world press to boycott the ghoulish sale.
In the wake of the tragedy, some celebrities called on governments to take "anti-paparazzi" measures. "It's high time to put an end to this, an end to the stake-outs and chases," said tenor Luciano Pavarotti. "There should be a law to protect citizens." Actor Tom Cruise echoed the demand for new laws. "You don't know what it's like being chased by them," he told CNN. "It is harassment under the guise of, you know, 'We are the press, we are entitled.' When people are having a private moment, they should be allowed to have a private moment."
In Britain, as in most countries, it is open season on celebrities. "There is no law in this country," says Charles Langley, night editor of the London Evening Standard. "There is only custom and an understanding that one should behave decently." France is the notable exception, where privacy laws are famously strict. "In theory, you can't photograph someone walking down the street," says Lawn. "You need written permission. In fact, if I shot a street scene, I'd technically have to get permission from every person that appeared in my picture." But the law is widely seen as ineffective when it comes to celebrity photographers. "You've got to remember that these paparazzi ride the edge of the law and often go over," says Les Wilson, editor of Britain's Sunday Express.
Like others in the business of publishing celebrity photos, Wilson maintains that Diana herself may have contributed to the problem. When her car raced away from the Ritz hotel after her dinner with Al Fayed, the photographers had no choice but to give chase, he contended. That view is shared by the Rome photographer who started it all. Tazio Secchiaroli was the inspiration for a celebrity-stalking lensman character in Federico Fellini's 1960 film La Dolce Vita whom the late director named "Paparazzo." Secchiaroli, now 72 and retired, acknowledges that his colleagues no longer show good taste. "There is a limit where someone should just say 'stop,' " he says. "But on the other hand, I don't see why people try to run away from paparazzi. At a certain point, they should just let themselves be photographed and move on." For Diana, however, that just meant moving within range of the next intrusive lens.
Maclean's September 8, 1997