A couple of years ago I had a series of phone calls with Alec Baldwin, who at the time was becoming frustrated with paparazzi photographing him and his growing family around the streets of New York City, his home. I asked him about his feelings on the matter during one of these calls, which elicited a hearty laugh and eventual sigh from him, followed by a long diatribe. Over the next few months I made it a point to ask other celebrities I interviewed to give me their point of view on this topic, for a possible story on paparazzi statutes—it never came to be, so I never published their answers until now.
Not too long ago some intimate photos of Taylor Swift sharing a private moment with her new boyfriend Tom Hiddleston were published—sure, these picturesque scenes could have been set up by Swift and/or Hiddleston as a publicity stunt, or maybe they were just leaning into the inevitable, taking some control of the situation? Maybe it's all for a music video? Even if it was set up (which at least one paparazzo doesn't believe), the two have separately been part of similar, unwanted photo shoots.
— Carleesi Lane (@carlylane) June 15, 2016
Neither, given their already lofty celebrity status, have much to gain from a stunt like this, but neither do we, as the gawking public. Maybe we were born with a gossip gene, a voyeuristic urge; whatever it is, we created a demand for photos like this, which created these paparazzo, and in turn this culture of peering into the private lives of people who are, really, just strangers to us. It's entertainment—at times humorous, at other times crass, and sometimes tragically fatal. It can also shine a light on other societal issues, like body-shaming.
This week Jennifer Aniston wrote about being ceaselessly photographed during private moments with her husband, which led to pregnancy rumors. "For the record, I am not pregnant. What I am is fed up," Aniston wrote in an editorial for HuffPo on Tuesday. She continued:
"I’m fed up with the sport-like scrutiny and body shaming that occurs daily under the guise of 'journalism,' the 'First Amendment' and 'celebrity news.' Every day my husband and I are harassed by dozens of aggressive photographers staked outside our home who will go to shocking lengths to obtain any kind of photo, even if it means endangering us or the unlucky pedestrians who happen to be nearby. But setting aside the public safety aspect, I want to focus on the bigger picture of what this insane tabloid ritual represents to all of us. The objectification and scrutiny we put women through is absurd and disturbing. The way I am portrayed by the media is simply a reflection of how we see and portray women in general, measured against some warped standard of beauty."
In the documentary Smash His Camera, which delves into the life of famous paparazzo Ron Galella, we see him careening through the streets of Los Angeles in his car in hot pursuit of a photo of a then 71-year-old Katharine Hepburn, who is described by Galella as having a "difficult personality" for wanting to "guard her privacy." Prior to this we see him literally chasing Jackie Onassis across Central Park, on his fifth day of relentlessly trailing her that week. It was around this time that he "got her," for what he calls "Windblown Jackie... [it's] my Mona Lisa."
Many of Galella's photos are different from what we see on TMZ today, they've aged in a way that make them feel iconic—the black & white film doesn't hurt, but the subjects were the real art here. Andy Warhol liked his work because he caught famous people "doing unfamous things." Others called his photographs "art" and likened his work to that of a street photographers. Today there are people out there who collect his prints, and galleries who exhibit them. Despite my inability to actually see into the future, I can say with some certainty that in 50 years from now we will not look at grainy photos of Rob Kardashian and Blac Chyna at the bank and declare them to be art. Galella himself is even unimpressed with celebrity today—"overexposed with very little talent," he has said.
In the beginning of Smash His Camera, a clip shows a newscaster explaining to his viewers that "in certain primitive tribes the natives have a horror of being photographed—they fear the photographer will steal their souls. Actually there's a tribe right here in America that feels the same way." It's hyperbole, but that soul-stealing moment is the point at which the paparazzi cross a line, and also make a buck. It feels invasive.
When I asked David Duchovny about paparazzi, and specifically if there should be laws outlawing or limiting this practice, he was a little torn—"I think it’s difficult to make statutes against where people can look when they’re in public, you know? I think you’re barking up a dangerous tree there with civil liberties." This is true, but what about those Aniston photos, clearly taken with a powerful lens, an 800mm a soul-stealing lens?
"I have thought about it," Duchovny told me at the time, "because the truth is with a high powered lens you get closer... if someone got that close to you in life, that’d be considered assault. They’d be up in your face. So there’s something about the lens to me that’s like an assault, but I don't know if the despair of whatever celebrity who’s having their picture taken is equal to the confiscation of liberty, at large."
Still, Duchovny told me, "if you can get up in my face from 100 yards away and I don’t know it, there must be something illegal about that... but people have a right to use whatever cameras they want to use, so unless you can come up with a really good reason why I’m going to curtail somebody’s liberty, it’s going to be tough [to pass a law]."
Below are a few other thoughts I got from celebrities of varying degree, when I posed this question to them a couple of years ago: Can you tell me what you think of paparazzi, should there be stricter statutes limiting the practice?
Alec Baldwin: "The most important thing about this to me... one is that, I'm not a public official, I'm a public figure. And there's a profound difference there, and there should be a profound difference according to the law. I don't make law, I don't control agencies, or oversee regulation or control government money. Those people, I think they're fair game. I think when you're trying to find out how public officials behave and what they do—there has to be all kinds of transparency there.
"For public figures, I think it's tilting too much toward the public officials side and not toward the private citizen side. You don't have a right to know anything about me, none. And this feeds to my other side of this, which is, in our society today people have succeeded, the media has succeeded, they've built a huge industry out of this—in channeling this perverse relationship between politics and celebrity. People in this country realize, consciously or unconsciously, that they don't have any political power any more. What they think, what they say, what they do, it doesn't really matter. So people have transferred that impotence over to the arena of celebrity and entertainment. They want their vote to count for something. And because it counts for nothing in Albany, and it counts for nothing in Washington, they want to believe it has some impact somewhere. So we now live in a society where, the entire society has been turned into a jury. And all they do is render opinions, whether they're qualified or not."
Zosia Mamet (Girls): "How interesting it is when people feel entitled to barge in on your life. Yes you have to make a living, but, I remember our first day of shooting last season was in SoHo on a Friday afternoon. And there's nothing to be done and the paparazzi can be wherever the fuck they want to be. And it was horrible. It took us an extra couple hours to get the scene we wanted because we were all so distracted. It feels really violating."
Matt Lauria (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood): "I don't know, I haven't had that experience. It's happened next to no times. So I don't know if I can have a strong opinion on it. I hear both sides, people say 'You choose that lifestyle then it's a public thing.' I do know this, there are a lot of celebrities who go looking for it, there are people who show up at certain places where there are fancy, scene-y places where you know a photographer could be present. But I never read about Tom Hanks, or Steven Spielberg being bothered. There were paparazzi pictures of Mae and I doing the ocean scene in Parenthood, and part of me thinks that the production company like, tipped them off for publicity. [Laughs]"
California probably has most strict anti-paparazzi laws, but obviously enforcement of this there, or elsewhere, is lacking. Anti-paparazzi laws will always be pretty meaningless, because of what Duchovny pointed out above—the first amendment is at stake.
When NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton was asked about restrictions on paparazzi here in New York (back in 2008, following his first stint as commish, and before his second), he said it was "a total waste of time... we don't seem to have much of an issue."