Interview by Sandhya Narayanan
Sandhya Narayanan: One goal of your ethnography is to delve deeper into the ways that celebrity, and its close relative, fame is manufactured and circulated. Yet one opposing undercurrent throughout the book is the recognition that aspects about the lives of the so-called rich and famous should be hidden, secret, and unknowable. Could you say more about this relationship between the dissemination of revealing photos and scoops with the ways in which celebrities also manage their allure through keeping certain aspects of their life unknowable? How is the looping of fame with privacy managed similarly or differently by Latinx, male, paparazzi photographers, and white, female, celebrity reporters?
Vanessa Diaz: Thank you for this very layered question. So my research led me to understand that it’s not necessarily that the lives of celebrities should be hidden, secret, or unknowable, but rather that celebrities themselves want to be able to strategically control and monetize these disclosures. The laws that have been put in place to protect celebrity children from paparazzi imagery isn’t because celebrities do not want photos of their children in the press. Rather, it’s because the celebrities want to control the supply of those photos, which can be highly lucrative. As I explore in the book (in chapters three and seven in particular) an exclusive photos of a celebrity’s child can be hugely valuable and can yield millions of dollars. Information and imagery about celebrity lives is valuable currency, and celebrities want to retain as much control over that currency as possible. And I discuss this as relates to various forms of capital in the book as well (especially chapter seven). Regarding the last question about how fame and privacy are managed similarly or differently by Latinx, male, paparazzi photographers, and white, female, celebrity reporters, there are also interesting distinctions here. The reporters are generally seen as operating more from the inside, as part of the more formal channels of celebrity media production. And this leads to them being understood as more on the side of the celebrities. In the book, I point to several examples of celebrity-focused stories where reporters discuss paparazzi with celebrities in adversarial terms during interviews, despite the fact that the article the interview yields is peppered with and relies on paparazzi images of that celebrity! So this perpetuates and even amplifies the precarity of paparazzi who are working outside of the formal celebrity media production processes. Because of this, paparazzi don’t have to necessarily be seen as being on the side of the celebrities in large part because the celebrity narrative has been one that strategically manufactures a dynamics in which paparazzi are celebrity adversaries, rather than celebrity promoters. As I discuss in the book (particularly in chapters two and three), however, paparazzi have developed their own ethical codes to do what they can to stay on celebrities’ good sides, even if it’s outside of the formal production processes. I think the issues of visibility and invisibility that I discuss in the book are also wrapped up in these dynamics (e.g. see page 60).
Sandhya Narayanan: You point out in your ethnography the ways that rising or lesser-known celebrities rely on the coverage provided by paparazzi and celebrity reporters to launch themselves into the spotlight. Yet at some point, these reporters, especially the paparazzi, are framed as enemies who are bent on destroying the lives and careers of our most beloved celebrities. Could you say more about this shift, and the role that consumers of celebrity news and gossip (that is, people like me who enjoy reading the tabloids as they wait to pay for groceries in the checkout aisle) play in also making or breaking this transition.
Vanessa Diaz: A goal of the book is to really pull the curtain back on these specific dynamics that you’re highlighting in this question, precisely because they are dynamics that consumers do inevitably play a role in. It’s important to understand that this shift is largely one that is manufactured by the celebrity-industrial complex itself. And I explore why this is in the book (particularly in chapter three), where I discuss the idea of celebrity empathy, which helps us understand how media can strategically cultivate affinity with certain people while strategically denying it to others. Being pursued by paparazzi to the degree that it can be presented as an annoyance is something that demonstrates a certain status or level of celebrity. So, performing annoyance, or even anger and disgust at paparazzi signifies importance. This is a way to assert and even flex celebrity status. However, it’s important to remember that even most A-list celebrities still rely on paparazzi for exposure. So, even someone like Jennifer Aniston who claims paparazzi keep her in a state of “false imprisonment” (pg 101 in my book, chapter three), also still uses them when she needs to strategically promote things like Smart Water, for which she is a paid spokesperson (pg. 113 in my book). So if you actually put together the pieces (which is what I hope my book offers), you can see how this shift you discuss is largely a shift performed (often by professional actors!), that, again, has to do with control and capital. Consumers are looking at and buying the magazines because of the celebrities they love, or love to hate, and not because of the paparazzi. And so it’s natural that the consumption of celebrity media, which is generally meant to celebrate, support, and help consumers get to know celebrities, leads to deeper celebrity empathy and, subsequently, increased demonization of figures like the paparazzi.
Sandhya Narayanan: Your work with paparazzi photographers was based primarily in LA. Yet, wherever a celebrity goes, there you would also find a paparazzi photographer. At one point, you also mention how one of the paparazzi photographers you were close with was shooting photos in New Orleans? Given the precarious nature of their work, how were these photographers able to travel across the country? How were they able to go on assignments out of the country? And is there some informal international network of paparazzi photographers?
Vanessa Diaz: The question of travel for paparazzi is actually an important one, and one in which you can see the value a good paparazzo has. Yes, all of the paparazzi I worked with on my research were sent by their agencies to shoot specific celebrities in specific locations outside of Los Angeles, precisely because they are known to get good shots. I don’t think there is space here to fully explain the structure of paparazzi employment, which I explore in depth in chapters one and two of the book. But, essentially, most paparazzi are freelance and work for specific photo agencies who have complete control over the sales of paparazzi photos. Paparazzi rely on the agencies to give them the cut of the image sales that they are promised. Even if the paparazzi are freelance, an agency might pay for them to travel if they know it might yield valuable exclusive photos. For example, in chapter seven (pg. 222-223), you can see a beautiful photo of Angelia Jolie, Brad Pitt, and their children shot by one of my main paparazzo collaborators, Galo Ramirez, in New Orleans. He was sent there by his agency and that photo ended up being a spread in People magazine, and several other of his images ended up in other outlets. So it literally paid for the agency to send Galo to New Orleans. And, as I explore in chapter two, the paparazzi only receive a small percentage of the total of their image sales; it’s the agencies that are really profiting from these images. Another way that paparazzi end up getting to travel is instances like the one I explore in chapter two (pg. 82-83), where a celebrity, in this case the entire Kardashian family, gets paid to work with an agency to have a paparazzo come shoot their entire family vacation. This guarantees an exclusive set of photos for the magazine (which they believe will translate to sales and, thus, they can recuperate the investment), and also guarantees coverage for the family. So, again, you can see the ways in which much of the coverage of celebrities, including and perhaps especially paparazzi shots, is about offering increasing control to celebrities. And yet they still often perform the irritation with paparazzi invading their space, even when they are often specifically invited into that space. Finally, there are certainly international paparazzi as well in various locations. And various agencies will work with international paparazzi as well.
Sandhya Narayanan: An interesting aspect about celebrity media production is the way it provides some degree of inclusion for amateurs and individuals with little to no experience in celebrity media creation and production. At times, this type of amateurism is at odds with individuals who are more established in the field. But more recently, we also see the rise of cellphone technology that can let anyone take a good shot or recording. How do you think these technologies, which have the potential to allow anyone to produce celebrity news content, might affect the livelihoods of paparazzi and celebrity reporters?
Vanessa Diaz: It is definitely unique and interesting that paparazzi have been able to break into the industry without formal training prior to them entering the field. However, as I explore in chapter one in the section “Skill, Training, and the New Paps” (pg. 57), a lot of the notions about professionalism is steeped in racist tropes and stereotypes about unskilled Latinx labor. The reality is that it is a myth that anyone can do paparazzi work. That doesn’t mean that paparazzi come in knowing how to operate the incredibly expensive and complicated photography equipment. But, as Galo explains, they have intensive on the job training. Yes, smart phones make it so that anybody standing next to Justin Bieber can get a photograph and that photograph has the potential to sell. But it is an illusion that valuable shots can all just be done on cell phones. There is certainly skill required in getting the exclusive, most valuable photos. Many of the most valuable, and frankly beautiful, paparazzi images entail the paparazzo having the skill to use complicated specialized equipment, like telephoto lenses that are sometimes several feet long (there are a few good examples in chapter one in the section “(In)Visibility and the Racialized Paparazzi,” which begins on page 60, as well as elsewhere in the book). Getting these shots also requires intel, which means you have to be a part of the network and have access to information so you know where to be to get the shot.
Sandhya Narayanan: I was struck by your assertion that celebrity reporters and photographers have created some of the most culturally significant and recognizable content since the turn of the new millennia. Yet, you point out that celebrity reporters do not think of themselves as journalists, nor do the paparazzi necessarily frame their photographs as photojournalism or art. This suggests that there is something going on in the structuring of media platforms within the US. Where does celebrity media fit in relation to other types of information media within the US? How can this positioning help us understand the inequities and precarities that paparazzi photographers and female celebrity reporters face in the industry?
Vanessa Diaz: As I explain in the book, any distinction between entertainment and news media at this point in American culture is simply a function of a public imaginary—that there should be a difference between hard news and entertainment news. It appears that we are in the final days of the first reality star presidency, but perhaps not the last. And I think the Trump presidency has done a great deal to even further blur any potential distinction between hard news and entertainment news precisely because he treated political news reporters in the same fashion he and other celebrities have always treated (and disregarded, belittled, and even abused and assaulted) entertainment media producers.
In terms of celebrity reporters not always considering themselves journalists, and paparazzi not necessarily thinking of their work as photojournalism or art, I think that it is, again, an extension of this public imaginary I discussed above, which is steeped in hierarchies and cultural elitism around ideas about news. At this point, fake news has become everyday language, and we can understand celebrity media as the original fake news. Celebrities have been denying celebrity news reporting for a century, whether the reporting was true or not. What I think is different about the present moment is that celebrity news and hard news and journalism are increasingly blurring together both in terms of the subject matter of the coverage and the way the media producers are viewed and treated.