“Can I call you back in, like, 10 minutes?” asked Giles Harrison, a longtime celebrity photographer and owner of London Entertainment Group, a paparazzi collective. He was driving around the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles in his Ford Expedition when he spotted a star: Tim Robbins, on his bike, wearing a mask. Harrison politely hung up and got his shots.
When he called back, he explained that widespread mask wearing has actually not impeded his ability to recognize celebrities on his daily drives around the west side of Los Angeles — Santa Monica, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades — where the rich and famous live.
“I’m really good at spotting people,” Harrison, 51, said. “I’m pretty phenomenal. I can literally spot somebody from behind — just by their walk, their hairstyle, body language.”
The challenging part is that since California issued a stay-at-home order in March, there have been fewer celebrities to spot. Stars, somewhat a little bit like us, are sitting at home.
Which makes those photos of Robbins all the more important to get, even though, as Harrison acknowledged, Robbins, the 61-year-old actor and former partner of Susan Sarandon, is not currently a “big deal” in the tabloid world.
The shots may not sell for much now, but they are something, and they could bring in revenue down the line if Robbins starts a new relationship, say, or shares a controversial political opinion online.
“Everybody’s one story away from having their picture be worth something,” Harrison said.
Stuck With What’s Left
Before the coronavirus hit the United States, Harrison and his team of 15 to 20 photographers were getting up to 200 sets of celebrity photos a month. They provided their shots exclusively to the photo agency Splash News, which then licensed them to outlets like Us Weekly, TMZ and The Daily Mail.
In the last month, though, Harrison and his crew have shot only 30 or 40 usable sets: Don Cheadle working out, Tyra Banks shopping at Target, Chris Pratt and Katherine Schwarzenegger taking a walk around the neighborhood (a particularly lucky get, as Schwarzenegger is reportedly pregnant and thus very interesting to People.com).
The outlook in New York City is even bleaker. “I could name on one hand the amount of celebs that are still in New York right now,” said Miles Diggs, a 25-year-old celebrity photographer who has been working in the city since dropping out of a photojournalism program at New York University eight years ago.
Stars like Amy Schumer and Hugh Jackman have stuck around, but the vast majority of New York-based celebrities have fled to vacation homes outside the city. Even Sarah Jessica Parker, who, according to Diggs, is “such a West Village staple,” has escaped to the Hamptons.
On an average day before all of this started, Diggs — who has built up more than 152,000 followers on Instagram by sharing his shots of Ariana Grande, Rihanna and Justin and Hailey Bieber — spent up to 15 hours a day walking around the city. He would usually spot five to 10 celebrities in a day: some New Yorkers, and some in town for promotional appearances on morning and late-night talk shows.
Now all of those appearances have been canceled, and New York paparazzi are stuck with what’s left.
Exclusive Jackman photos used to be worth “a couple hundred dollars,” Diggs said. But now, he could be competing with multiple photographers, and “the value comes crashing down,” he said. “You’re working for 50 bucks or something.”
In the last few weeks, Diggs has ventured out of his New Jersey home to work only a handful of times. He got an “easy shot” of Sarah Silverman cheering health care workers from her balcony in Manhattan that landed in People.com’s “Star Tracks” feature, a daily roundup of paparazzi photos.
But it is “a $40 to $50 photo,” he said. “She does it every day at 7:00 sharp, and many people have gone to try and get their pennies off of the shot.”
This kind of work is not going to be worth it in the long term. “I definitely value my safety and health over fighting over a photo with other photographers who are also struggling, you know?” Diggs said.
As it has in many industries, the coronavirus has exacerbated existing problems in the paparazzi and tabloid worlds. Paparazzi have long been accused of harassing their subjects and invading privacy, which makes it hard to argue that the business is essential. And then, the recession in 2008 “was the start of the major decline in our business,” said Randy Bauer, owner of the celebrity photo agency Bauer-Griffin.
Since then, magazine advertising budgets have shrunk, and celebrities have often turned to social media instead of the paparazzi to share their personal moments.
Tabloids have filled their pages with these shots from Instagram, which makes it harder for agencies to sell photos. And since March, there have not been nearly enough photos to sell. Bauer, 51, went from moving 7,000 to 8,000 photos per month to 500 to 1,000. His agency canceled contracts with freelance photographers and is relying on a Paycheck Protection Program loan to keep paying a few people in the office.
Competing agencies like Splash have furloughed or laid off their staff photographers, which means almost all paparazzi have to freelance now — take their own shots, give them to an agency and hope they sell — to make any money.
Harrison and Diggs have always worked this way, so they are better off than most: They own the rights to their archives, which continue to bring in revenue. (In early March, Diggs climbed onto a Chinatown roof and snapped some of the last photos of Harvey Weinstein being carried off to jail — a “hit,” he said, that could carry him for months.)
“My prediction: I think it’s going to be a lot more of a collaborative effort,” Diggs said from his New Jersey home. As the coronavirus crisis wears on, celebrities who in normal times are regularly photographed may decide they would like to do that again.
“I’ve gotten tons of messages from people that are, like, ‘Look, I can’t get photographed. Would you mind coming and taking some shots for me?’” he said. “And I think that that’s going to happen a lot more frequently in the next coming months.”
Over the course of his career, Diggs has built relationships with stars like Justin Bieber and Grande, and if some of them decide they would like to set up some shots, he is all for it.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it,” Diggs said. “Most of the time when I shoot on the street anyway, I show myself. People are aware of my presence.” He asks, “if they want to fix their hair before I take the shot, ‘Are you ready?’ Boom. Smile. 10 foot, 10 clicks, three seconds, boom. Everybody on their way.”
“So I like working that way,” he continued, “and I’ll definitely want to continue building relationships, especially during this time where I can say, ‘Hey, look, I need to get something for this week. Do you want to get dressed up and go to Target? Do you want to go walk your dog in 15 minutes? OK, cool.’”
Plenty of celebrities are probably already doing this, though it is difficult to confirm; most paparazzi are loath to talk about such arrangements. But take a look at The Daily Mail, and you can see which celebs may be, ahem, collaborating.
There’s Kylie Jenner, in full hair and makeup, slowly and almost sensually putting on a face mask on an outing in Beverly Hills, in photos conveniently taken a few days after less flattering shots of her wearing no makeup were everywhere on Twitter.
For celebrities aspiring to Kardashian-level fame, now is the time to walk around outside, Bauer said. “I’ve noticed some of them, they come out with their masks on, and then they know that they’re being photographed, and they take the mask off to make for a nicer picture,” he said. (See: Peter Weber and Kelly Flanagan, of “Bachelor” fame, stopping to make out for photographers mid-bike ride in Los Angeles last week.)
In Miami, pop stars Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes have been taking long, slow walks around Cabello’s neighborhood, holding hands and carrying (seemingly empty) coffee cups as props.
But perhaps no one has been photographed more in quarantine than Ben Affleck, America’s favorite divorced dad. “Ben Affleck’s one of those people that you can make money off of him, weirdly, no matter what he does,” Harrison said.
Affleck and his newish girlfriend, actress Ana de Armas, have been photographed walking around his neighborhood more than a dozen times. Sometimes they wear masks. Sometimes they walk their dogs. Sometimes they stop at Dunkin’ or — Affleck, specifically — sneak a cigarette. As of this week, they are wearing matching heart necklaces and sharing clothes.
“I think Ben Affleck knows very well that he wants the good press of him in his new relationship, and he doesn’t mind stepping out and walking very slowly with the dogs, smiling, holding hands and happy,” Diggs said.
Harrison does not think Affleck is officially collaborating with the paparazzi, however. “There’s people outside of his house every single day,” he said, whether Affleck calls them or not.
While there is continued interest in the peregrinations of Affleck and de Armas, photographers can make decent money on these photos — Bauer estimated somewhere in the low five figures.
But these are not the paydays of the tabloid boom in the mid-aughts. “I loved doing the interviews back in the day, in 2007, because I could say, ‘Oh, we just closed a deal for $150,000 for covering People,’” he said. “Now it’s such a depressed industry that if you can make a couple of thousand dollars from a client on a set, that’s considered good.”
Find the Story
At a certain point, Page Six may tire of running very similar photos of Affleck and de Armas every day, and obviously staged photos of Jenner will not sustain The Daily Mail in the long term. To continue to move images, paparazzi will have to “find the story,” Harrison said. “I always tell my photographers — and I operate under the theory — that it’s always story first.”
In the current environment, one story that seems to be breaking through is celebrities ignoring or flouting social distancing rules. At the end of April, Page Six ran an entire gallery of paparazzi photos showing Andie MacDowell crawling under the gate of a Los Angeles park that was closed because of the virus. Her daughters, Margaret and Rainey Qualley, and her Chihuahua mix, Ava Gardner, were also spotted sneaking out.
These kinds of “social distance shaming” photos are more valuable right now, Diggs said. “I think that that’s like breaking news nowadays,” he said. “If somebody’s talking to their neighbor, and they give them a hug, like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ Yeah, that’s definitely the new hot shot. Instead of somebody getting photographed in a bikini, which would be a big seller, now it’s interacting with other people.”
Of course, catching a MacDowell moment takes incredible luck (or a really good tip). Before the crisis started, Harrison was already experimenting with ways to draw out these kinds of stories. In 2019, he started an app called MoPho — “money photo” — that allows everyday people to submit photos they catch of celebrities or other newsworthy subjects in the wild.
If they’re good, Harrison sells them and pays the user a commission. The app has helped his business “tremendously,” he said, especially in this time when fewer photographers want to go out and shoot.
Diggs has widened his subject base as he waits for celebrity life in New York to return to normal.
At the end of April, he drove into the city and noticed something strange over the Hudson River. “There were turkey vultures flying over the hospital ship,” he said. “I noticed what type of birds they were, I knew what they meant, and I got a couple of shots. Those happened to sell.” You can see the photos on The Daily Mail.