Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Rise of the 'Citizen Paparazzi'

Hunger for Celebrity Gossip Helps Create a Market
For Amateurs, But Not Everyone Is Happy

Erin Horgan is more than a casual John Mayer fan. When she learned about a Caribbean cruise being offered earlier this month with the singer as the featured entertainment, the 22-year-old worker at a Hyannis, Mass., scrapbooking store didn't hesitate to drop $1,000 for a ticket.

As it turned out, she got even more contact with her favorite singer than she expected: Mr. Mayer, hamming it up for fellow passengers, donned a neon green thong-style swimsuit as Ms. Horgan and others furiously snapped photographs. In a blog post after returning home, Ms. Horgan joked that she was going to send the pictures to celebrity magazine Us Weekly.

She didn't have to. Within days, Ms. Horgan heard not only from Us Weekly, but also from MTV, VH1, Rolling Stone, Blender and Newsweek. She ended up selling photos to Newsweek and VH1 – she says she was offered "a couple hundred" for each photo, but declines to be more specific.

Erin Horgan, 22, snapped pictures of a scantily clad John Mayer while on a cruise. She sold photos of the singer to Newsweek and VH1.

"The thought of getting shots that anyone was interested in was never on my mind," she said.

Ms. Horgan is part of the changing face of the paparazzi trade, an Internet-fueled industry that feeds on the public's seemingly insatiable interest in entertainment news. Photo agencies are increasingly relying on submissions from regular folk who either happen to bump into celebrities while carrying digital cameras, or who have injected themselves into the cat-and-mouse game of celebrity snapshots, despite any formal training.

This has led to an explosion in the number of photographs available to magazines and Web sites like TMZ or Perez Hilton. And it has created friction with the old-guard paparazzi, who often find themselves navigating throngs of amateurs at red-carpet events. The pros complain that the newcomers are partly to blame for depressed prices, since they sometimes agree to sell shots for $25 or $50 that could have commanded several hundred dollars before. What's more, they gripe about rude and particularly aggressive behavior from some of the amateurs – no small allegation in an industry long known for its anything-goes tactics.

"It's the citizen paparazzi," said Mario Lavandeira, who is better known by his online persona Perez Hilton. His popular gossip blog frequently posts celebrity pictures submitted by readers.

Right Place, Right Time

[See a slidedhow]
See a slideshow of some photos taken by the new ranks of celebrity photographers.

Photo agencies such as Buzz Foto LLC, Scoopt (acquired last year by Getty Images Inc.) and Mr. Paparazzi are among those that increasingly encourage amateurs and young photographers to send in their findings. For Brad Elterman, Buzz Foto's co-founder, the most successful contributors are people who find themselves in the right place at the right time, such as a guest who is staying in the same Maui hotel as Nicole Richie. "They can break the story before anybody else," he said. "That is the future, without a doubt."

Mr. Elterman got his start shooting Bob Dylan and Robert De Niro in the 1970s and remembers waiting, across the street and with only two or three other paparazzi, for stars to emerge from restaurants. Those days are long gone, he said. "This is not rocket science," he added. "Everyone who has a digital camera is a potential correspondent."

One of his stars is Justin Campbell, an 18-year-old college student in New York whose first big break was snagging a shot of Kirstie Alley eating pie -- "right when she was doing the Jenny Craig thing," Mr. Campbell said. The photo ended up in the National Enquirer, and Mr. Campbell made $600.

Many days, he goes on the prowl for celebrities as soon as he finishes classes in the afternoon, often staying out until 2 a.m. "He reminds me of me when I was a kid," Mr. Elterman said.

On a single evening last month, Mr. Campbell photographed Paris Hilton in four different locations, as well as Bruce Willis, Rosanna Arquette and Hollywood stylist Rachel Zoe. He sends his photos to Buzz Foto's site, where Mr. Elterman then tries to sell them to magazines, newspapers and Web sites. When photos sell, Buzz Foto pays photographers 60% of the sales price. Scoopt, which operates in a similar way, pays 40%.

The services generally prohibit contributors from submitting photos to more than one agency and some ask that contributors refrain from posting submissions on personal blogs. Photographers also must affirm that their pictures weren't altered or taken in violation of privacy laws.

Mr. Campbell hopes to carve out a career as a photographer, but other contributors are more casual. Celeste Manolas, a project architect in Santa Barbara, Calif., landed a paparazzo's Holy Grail -- Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie -- during a recent film festival screening.

The Hollywood couple walked toward her, standing with ticket holders instead of in an area designated for professional photographers. Startled by her good luck, Ms. Manolas snapped away with one hand while holding her six-year-old Chihuahua, Sofia, in the other. "I must have taken probably 30 or 40 shots, 99% of which came off totally black," she said.

Her sister suggested that she try selling one particularly well-lit, smiling photo of the couple. Ms. Manolas did some research on Google and discovered Scoopt. So far, the picture hasn't been purchased. But Ms. Manolas says she now finds herself scoping out other events that could lead to photo sales.

Friction on the Red Carpet

Increasingly, nonprofessionals are positioning themselves alongside press photographers, said Brian Ach, a full-time freelancer for celebrity-photo agency WireImage, which is also owned by Getty. "It becomes difficult when there are marked spots for traditional agencies at an event, and somebody with a little point-and-shoot shows up and says, 'Well, I'm with so-and-so Web site," he said. "It happens at every single event."

Another professional photographer, Nancy Kaszerman, said shooting celebrities on the street means "fighting off the cellphones." At a recent Hotel Gansevoort party in New York, so many "TMZ-type" paparazzi crowded Ms. Jolie that she couldn't pose for a picture, Ms. Kaszerman said. "They were basically on top of her. They didn't use their lenses or their zooms," she said. "In the past, photographers would've given her some breathing room."

Aggressive tactics have become something of a trademark for X17 Inc., an 11-year-old agency known for its exhaustive coverage of Britney Spears. X17 has responded to the increased demand for photos by hiring untrained photographers, including homeless people, as paparazzi. "You don't have to be a professional photographer to be a paparazzo," said Brandy Navarre, who runs the company with her husband, Francois.

X17's 2007 sales topped $11 million, she said. Most of its photographers are paid a monthly retainer plus a 50% commission on picture sales, she added.

The reason these services are thriving, said Darryn Lyons, the founder of the London-based Web site Mr. Paparazzi, is that the general public is more likely to come across a million-dollar sighting than a photographer dispatched to capture an image.

"The public has greater access and better access than the official media at these times," he said. One example: A contributor to his Web site who made $30,000 from a set of photos of Gwyneth Paltrow surfing in Cornwall, on the southwestern tip of England.

But only one in 10 photos he receives is saleable, Mr. Lyons said, and only 1% will earn "good money" – several thousand dollars or more. Mr. Paparazzi lists tips on what it wants (David and Victoria Beckham) and doesn't want (reality-show stars).

But while the right photo still sparks a bidding war, overall, prices have been eroded by the glut of options editors face. "People hear about the videos of Britney crying somewhere getting $30,000," Mr. Ach of WireImage said. "It's kind of like the gold rush."

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