How Paparazzi Work

Anita Ekberg, mobbed by paparazzi, in a scene from Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.”
Anita Ekberg, mobbed by paparazzi, in a scene from Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.”
John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

One of the first and most famous paparazzi-style photos ever taken might look like a vintage version of any A-list car exit arrival gone awry -- a la Britney Spears flashing a tad too much skin while getting out of limo in 2006, sans underwear. In the black and white shot taken at night in Rome, actor Anthony Steele is lumbering toward the paparazzo, visibly intoxicated, fists tightened, teetering on one foot at a perilous angle toward the ground. Behind him, Swedish actress Anita Ekberg, his bombshell wife, is on her way out of the sedan, eyes downcast, perhaps mentally preparing to face the camera. Clearly, the couple’s marriage wasn’t as picturesque as it might’ve appeared on a film set.

To the man behind the lens, Italian photographer and pioneer paparazzo Tazio Secchiaroli, the photo was career-making, renting the sacred veil between stars and the public eye. At the time, Rome was the go-to spot for celebrity sightings, since many film sets had migrated there from Hollywood in search of cheaper movie-making locations [source: Wood]. Stars twinkled in cafes, restaurants and bars along the famous Via Veneto, attracting those first paparazzi and their blinding flash bulbs. Ava Gardner, Jayne Mansfield and Anita Ekberg were among the prized targets, with paparazzi itching to catch them acting out in some way, not at all like a put-together celebrity image [source: TIME]. Around the time that Secchiaroli snapped the photo described above, Ekberg starred as a paparazzi-hunted starlet in Federico Fellini’s 1960 “La Dolce Vita,” the film often credited with the source of the term “paparazzo,” borrowed from the character Paparazzo, the leading man’s photographer sidekick.


Since Fellini’s derisive depiction of the camera-wielding wolf pack, the paparazzi have always carried a negative reputation. Unlike Bob Willoughby, the first on-set movie photographer in the 1940s, who snapped stars during breaks in filming, the paparazzi aren’t attempting to create art. Instead, their most profitable shots are the ones that remove any distance between the famous target and the viewer, exploiting everything from stars' emotional breakdowns to their bad hair days. Perfectly coiffed Britney Spears posing on the red carpet is worthless compared to a grainy image of her staring into a salon mirror with half her head shaved, electric razor in hand.

The ubiquity of paparazzi photography and the public’s ever-growing need for more images of stars going about their lives is a relatively recent phenomenon. As always, however, the group of photographers and shot callers spoon-feeding the contemporary tabloid culture remains exclusive, aggressive and money-hungry.

Paparazzi Safari: Hunting for Celebrity Sightings

Paparazzi wait around for Lindsay Lohan to be released from the Lynwood Correctional Facility.
Paparazzi wait around for Lindsay Lohan to be released from the Lynwood Correctional Facility.
Toby Canham/Getty Images

At the most basic level, paparazzi hang out on the streets and in public places waiting for an opportunity to photograph a star. In public, the paparazzi can snap away unhindered by laws. But for a paparazzo who wants to make the big bucks, this method is far too inefficient; he must make sure he’s in the right place at the right time to get the shot.

Decades ago on Rome's Via Veneto, the birthplace of the paparazzi cultural phenomenon, amateur Italian photographers loitered around celebrity haunts and hangouts waiting for the action to happen. Although the paparazzi industry has changed dramatically since then, it still involves a lot of waiting around, like a hunter in a deer stand, his rifle at the ready [source: Samuels]. By watching, waiting and possibly paying off valet attendants, shop clerks, restaurant hosts and others, paparazzi can gradually learn about a celebrity’s habits and anticipate their activities. This paparazzi lifestyle has also evolved into its own minor tourist attraction. For a fee, Los Angeles visitors can fulfill their celebrity obsession and go hunting for Brad, Jen, Britney and whomever else is out and about that day with a bona fide "pap" [source: Yancey].


The influence of the Internet has also affected how paparazzi hunt down their prey. Ironically, as the celebrity photography industry has grown more voracious, a symbiotic relationship has also developed among agents and public relations managers and the paps. Up-and-coming performers or personalities might directly engage with paparazzi, goading them to snap pictures that could get into tabloids and blogs. In paparazzi parlance, people willfully setting up supposedly candid shots is called “giving it up” [source: Samuels].

But often with the paparazzi, the tactics for getting paid are far more about taking than giving.

Shooting Stars: Paparazzi Tactics

Jackie Kennedy Onassis won a restraining order against paparazzo Ron Gallella.
Jackie Kennedy Onassis won a restraining order against paparazzo Ron Gallella.
Ron Galella/Getty Images

Ron Galella, one of the most famous (or infamous) figures in paparazzi history, went to extreme lengths to stalk his favorite celebrities. Although his candid shots of Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Barbara Streisand and other A-listers have earned him a small fortune during his 50-year career that started in the 1950s, the now-septuagenarian didn’t exactly earn his subjects’ respect along the way. Galella is best known for following Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis from New York to the Greek Isles for years, a situation that culminated in a 1973 restraining order banning him from coming within 125 feet (38 meters) of the former first lady [source: Telegraph]. After that, Galella still would don disguises, hideaway in trees and taxis and even violate his restraining order in order get another image of Jackie O. In other words, he set the standard for the modern-day paparazzi feeding frenzy.

Whether today’s paparazzi are familiar with Galella or not, they abide by the same professional principle: Get a shot by any means necessary. The individual paparazzo is only limited by his or her resources, craftiness and nerve. Industry competition leaves little room for excuses, however, which is why the celebrity photographers tread a fine line between the public and private, getting as close -- and sometimes dangerously close -- as they can to their targets.


Although celebrities are public figures, which legally allows paparazzi to snap their photos on the street and sell them for exorbitant sums without prior approval, the rules change when it comes to private property. Paparazzi must respect property laws barring them from camping outside bedroom windows or barging into restaurants and taking a table next to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Instead, they often wait outdoors until their targets inevitably make an exit, which, some argue, is just as intrusive. For instance, late singer Amy Winehouse won a court-ordered injunction against paparazzi “door-stepping,” or camping outside her home, in 2009. Afterward, Brit photographers couldn’t legally get within 330 feet (100 meters) of her suburban stoop [source: Dowell and Robinson].

Once in public, however, paparazzi are far freer to surround celebrities, swarming around their cars or cabs like gnats. Roving bands of paparazzi consisting of drivers, photographers and spotters (who keep an eye out for the famous) may descend upon stars, forming a triangle around targets to ensure that someone gets a clear frame no matter what [source: Samuels]. These aggressive tactics have rebranded today’s paparazzi as the “stalkerazzi.”

Why the frantic celebrity chase? For the promise of a hefty payday, of course.

The Dwindling Price of Fame: Paparazzi Recession

A posed photo of celebs at an event doesn’t bring in much cash, comparatively.
A posed photo of celebs at an event doesn’t bring in much cash, comparatively.
Eric Charbonneau/Getty Images

On the streets of Rome in the 1960s, a paparazzi photo could fetch $5 to $500, depending on the situation and the celeb in question [source: TIME]. Fast forward to 2006, and People magazine bought the first publicly released photograph of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s firstborn, Shiloh Nouvel Jolie-Pitt, for an astronomical $4.1 million [source: Rose]. Who was the lucky paparazzo who brought home such as fat slab of bacon from the sale? Nobody. Pitt and Jolie decided to beat the paparazzi at their own game by auctioning the photos off to the highest-bidding magazine and donating the proceeds to charity, instead. Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher forged a similar ploy by selling their wedding photos to OK! magazine for a cool $3 million [source: Rose].

The celebrity couples’ photo arrangements went somewhat like the paparazzi process used to back in the day. Before paparazzi photo agencies saturated the market, lone paps used to shop their shots around to different publications, such as People, Star and Us Weekly. To offer a photograph, the paparazzo would e-mail a low-resolution copy of the photo with a watermark embedded in the image to prevent the digital photo from being stolen. Fifteen years ago, a typical paparazzi photo depicting, say, Jennifer Aniston shopping with Courtney Cox, could bring in a few thousand, whereas Britney Spears almost dropping her baby could command six figures.


Today, the money shots are much harder to come by due to celebrity photo agencies. X17, the largest paparazzi agency in Hollywood, manages a stable of around 70 photographers, whom it pays about $800 to $3,000 per week, in exchange for full licensing rights [source: Loomis]. Since X17 supplies celebrity shots to high-traffic celebrity sites, tabloids and mainstream media outlets, it makes money many times over by selling and reselling the same image for publication all over the Web and the magazine rack, a practice called “versioning” [source: Samuels].

While it might seem that media sources are plastered with the faces of the rich and famous, the demand for celebrity photography has started to outweigh the supply, ironically, because so many paparazzi are out at once. Getting a clear, exclusive shot of an A-list celebrity is nearly impossible when dozens of competing paparazzi and bystanders with camera phones are blocking the way.

Therefore, in a way, technology has simultaneously improved and diminished a paparazzo’s chance of getting a picture -- or at least getting handsomely paid for it.

Paparazzi Cameras and Technology

High-powered paparazzi cameras are a challenge to escape.
High-powered paparazzi cameras are a challenge to escape.
Gilles Mingasson/Getty Images

Participating in the paparazzi safari has long been a game of speed: pouncing on the celebrity before anyone else does and getting the right photo at the right time. Technology has only amplified the importance of time and precision in the paparazzi industry. High-resolution camera phones have also enabled anyone, whether employed by a photo agency or not, to instantly become a short-term shooter. As the field has opened, the value of the paparazzi product has been simultaneously downgraded.

In the early days, celebrity outings and arrivals would certainly attract a swarm of paparazzi, cameras at the ready. But the entire process, from snapping an exposure to getting a photograph printed in a tabloid, was much slower. Even flash capabilities were limited. Photographers would have to change out or recharge flash bulbs, possibly wasting precious minutes in the process. Film photography had to be processed, too, further delaying the photo's delivery to the public. Now, the paparazzi industry is entirely digital, which means that shooters can instantly uploaded their frames to an agency server or e-mail them out to potential buyers.


Paparazzi cameras don’t necessarily differ from those of other professional photographers and videographers, except they might need to be more adept at swapping equipment to shoot at various ranges, like a golfer easily switching from a driver to a putter. For instance, when he took the iconic photograph of Britney Spears shaving her head, Los Angeles paparazzo Luiz Betat couldn’t fit his longer-range 70-200 millimeter camera through the hair salon’s tiny back door opening. Instead, he switched it out for a shorter 24-70 millimeter camera, stealthily going unnoticed by the pop star, as he captured the shocking moment [source: Samuels].

But just because paparazzi are armed and ready to shoot celebrities at will doesn’t mean the stars have to acquiesce. Indeed, the higher up the A-list ladder one climbs, the more elaborate the paparazzi-dodging likely becomes.

Playing Hide and Seek with the Paparazzi

Paparazzi snap Brad Pitt in a Japanese airport.
Paparazzi snap Brad Pitt in a Japanese airport.
Junko Kimura/Getty Images

Since actors are, almost by definition, masters of disguise, you might think that dodging the paparazzi would be easy for them. But when you have a recognizable face, blending into the crowd can be impossible, no matter how low you pull down your baseball cap. After all, Hollywood paparazzi often collaborate in teams, keeping in touch with celebrity whereabouts via cell phone and text message, with additional sightings and rumors pouring in from paid informants and friends.

Certain celebrities, such as Brad Pitt, are notoriously challenging to shoot. As a star who’s been in the public eye for a long time, Pitt knows how to send out decoys and derail the awaiting paps. As mentioned earlier in the article, he and Angelina Jolie even sold photos of their daughter Shiloh in lieu of having to deal with the paparazzi stalking the baby. Speaking to Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” Pitt once described his family’s exit strategy from their home as “a ‘Mission Impossible’ with decoys” [source: NPR].


Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas took perhaps the most famous and extreme set of measures to keep paparazzi out of the picture at their wedding in 2000:

  • Caterers, help, suppliers and any other vendors associated with the wedding signed confidentiality agreements (even the ones that didn't get the job).
  • No wedding guests were given the time or location of the wedding until the last minute.
  • The day before the wedding, special tickets were hand-delivered or couriered to the invited guests.
  • Each ticket had a code in invisible ink alongside a special design, which the couple personally authenticated.
  • Once admitted to the wedding, guests swapped the tickets for a gold "guest" pin designed by Jones and Douglas.
  • Cameras weren’t allowed inside the event.
  • All wedding rooms were swept several times for hidden audio or video recording devices.
  • Three private security guards patrolled the corridors at all times.
  • Douglas and Zeta-Jones arranged a publishing deal with OK! magazine to print select photos.

Even though the couple shelled out $66,000 for this elaborate security detail, paparazzo Rupert Thorpe managed to infiltrate the wedding and snap shots of the bride and groom that he later sold to tabloids Hello! and The Sun. The Hollywood couple later won a monetary settlement for the infringement, however.

If paparazzi are able to get away with encroaching on celebrities' daily lives, when do privacy rights kick in?

Paparazzi & Privacy Rights

David Hasselhoff embraces the paparazzi outpouring.
David Hasselhoff embraces the paparazzi outpouring.
Chris Weeks/Getty Images

The laws on the right of privacy vary from country to country. Under U.S. law, the right of privacy is defined by Black's Law Dictionary in the following way:

  • The right to personal autonomy. The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly provide for a right of privacy or for a general right of personal autonomy, but the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that a right of personal autonomy is implied in the "zones of privacy" created by specific constitutional guarantees.
  • The right of a person and the person's property to be free from unwarranted public scrutiny or exposure .

So, if we are to understand that the law upholds our right to be "free from unwarranted public scrutiny or exposure," then it would seem paparazzi aren’t allowed to do what they do. In fact, privacy rights, as established and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, were based on the recognition that journalism and news gathering inherently intrude on people’s personal lives from time to time [source: Nordhaus]. And certainly, paparazzi such as Ron Galella, whose stalking provoked Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to seek out a restraining order against him, violate those privacy provisions laid out in the law. And in more recent years, celebrities including Sienna Miller, Hugh Grant and Lily Allen have fought back against the paparazzi system in court to defend their basic human rights to live their lives without excessive intrusion from a mob of camera-wielding strangers.


However, such intrusion often is permissible when it’s in the public interest, or when someone -- i.e. a celebrity -- pursues a profession that thrusts him or her into the limelight as part of the gig. In other words, there’s a loophole in privacy laws when it comes to people legally defined as public figures.

Public Figure Protection from Paparazzi

As Bradley Cooper’s star has risen in recent years, his privacy rights have diminished.
As Bradley Cooper’s star has risen in recent years, his privacy rights have diminished.
Uri Schanker/Getty Images

Former Us Weekly editor-in-chief, Janice Min, says, "A celebrity is like an elected official. If you're getting paid $20 million a movie, you have to rely on public goodwill to stay in office. You have to accept the fact that you're a public commodity." Legally speaking, Min was correct, since celebrities, public officials and private citizens involved in newsworthy incidents all constitute public figures. Public figures actually have far fewer rights to privacy than ordinary people, and when suing for defamation they must prove that the defendant acted with actual malice. Public figures, however, aren’t created equally and break down into two types:

  • All-purpose public figure: A person who achieves such pervasive fame or notoriety that he or she becomes a public figure for all purposes and in all contexts. Whether or not the person actively seeks attention, having great persuasive power and influence automatically deems him or her an all-purpose public figure. Example: A company executive such as former Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner, a professional athlete like Venus Williams, or a celebrity like Bradley Cooper falls into this category.
  • Limited-purpose public figure: A person who, having become involved in a particular public issue, has achieved fame or notoriety only in relation to that particular issue. This person's public figure status, along with that heavier burden of proof for defamation, is restricted to the context of whatever issue or controversy initially launched them into the limelight. Example: People involved in controversies, such as the parents of Casey Anthony, fall into this category.

These exclusions of the law give the paparazzi their rights. That is not to say that paparazzi don't sometimes break laws in pursuit of a shot. But as long as there's a high demand for what they do, breaking the law becomes an acceptable risk, as in the case of Ron Galella, who blatantly violated his restraining order to photograph Jackie O. on numerous occasions.


The Laws of Photography

Princess Diana’s fatal car wreck spurred legal limitations for paparazzi.
Princess Diana’s fatal car wreck spurred legal limitations for paparazzi.
Christ Jackson/Getty Images

Princess Diana’s 1997 fatal car crash during a high-speed paparazzi chase instigated a string of photography-related legislation. Consequently, any photographer who pursues Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (formerly known as Kate Middleton), in the same manner risks litigation in the event of an accident [source: Harman]. In fact, by the time she wed Prince William, the Duchess of Cambridge had already won settlements in court for paparazzi privacy breaches [source: Harman].

In California, paparazzi are legally prohibited from trespassing on private property, using telephoto lenses to survey private property or pursuing targets in cars [source: LaPorte]. However, the frequency of paparazzi-celebrity run-ins since January 2010, when the law was last amended, have indicated that the legislation’s bark might tougher than its bite.


Laws regarding public photography have always been a gray area. In the United States, photographs that are taken for editorial use in a public place generally enjoy Constitutional protection under the right of free speech. There are exceptions, however. Here are just a few of the gray areas:

  • Police crime scenes, disasters, fires or riots are considered secured emergency areas. Photography isn’t legal in these situations without permission.
  • Even editorial photographs can come under scrutiny when a caption is added. If photo captions imply something false or libelous about the person in the photo, then they aren't legally protected free speech.
  • Photos of a person in a public place can’t be used to promote any goods or services without permission.

The controversy surrounding anti-paparazzi legislation comes down to the question of where to draw the line between legitimate news gathering and invasions of privacy. If laws are left as they are, a celebrity's privacy -- and, in some cases, his or her life -- may continue to be endangered by the ruthlessness of some photographers [source: LaPorte]. On the other hand, if the laws become too restrictive, then the freedom of the press could be jeopardized, and for that reason, a judicial tension remains between the two.

With the cultural appetite for celebrity voyeurism, it’s questionable whether the public is even concerned about anti-paparazzi legislation. As long as images of the rich and famous committing foibles both minor and monstrous continue to arrest our attention -- and sway our online traffic and magazine purchases -- the paparazzi mobs will continue to swarm and snap. After all, they’re only giving us what we want: proof that celebrities are imperfect, just like us.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Dowell, Ben and Robinson, James. “Amy Winehouse wins court ban on paparazzi at her home.” The Guardian. May 1, 2009. (Oct. 28, 2011)
  • Harman, Danna. “How Princess Diana changed the way paparazzi pursue Kate Middleton.” The Christian Science Monitor. April 29, 2011. (Oct. 28, 2011)
  • Hirsch, Afua. “Sienna Miller sues paparazzi for harassment.” The Guardian. Oct. 30, 2008. (Oct. 28, 2011)
  • Independent. “Sienna Miller: Hacking’s heroine.” Sept. 23, 2011. (Oct. 28, 2011)
  • LaPorte, Nicole. “The Do-Nothing Paparazzi Law.” The Daily Beast. Feb. 25, 2010. (Oct. 28, 2011)
  • Loomis, Nicole Zsuzsanna. “Paparazzi.” University of Southern California. May 2009. (Oct. 28, 2011)
  • Nordhaus, Jamie E. “Celebrities’ Rights to Privacy: How Far Should the Paparazzi Be Allowed to Go?” The Review of Litigation. Vol. 18. Issue 2. (Oct. 28, 2011)
  • NPR. “Brad Pitt: ‘Moneyball, Life and ‘The Stalkerazzi’.” Sept. 22, 2011. (Oct. 28, 2011)
  • Rose, Lacey. “The Most Expensive Celebrity Photos.” Forbes. July 18, 2007. (Oct. 28, 2011)
  • Samuels, David. “Shooting Britney.” The Atlantic. April 2008. (Oct. 28, 2011)
  • Telegraph. “Ron Galella and Jackie Onassis in pictures.” Nov. 25, 2010. (Oct. 28, 2011)
  • TIME. “The Press: Paparazzi on the Prowl.” April 14, 1961. (Oct. 28, 2011),9171,872287,00.html
  • Wood, Gaby. “Camera, movie star, Vespa…it all began on the Via Veneto.” The Guardian. Sept. 23, 2006. (Oct. 28, 2011)
  • Yancy, Kitty Bean. “Tour L.A. with a real-life paparazzo.” USA Today. Dec. 23, 2010. (Oct. 28, 2011)