Photojournalist or Paparazzo? A Distinction with a Difference

June 21st, 2012 by Mickey Osterreicher and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

All paparazzi are photographers.

But not all photographers are paparazzi.

The problem is that in a time of catchy phrases, it seems that many media outlets are unable or unwilling to take the time to distinguish between the two.

In the aftermath of actor Alec Baldwin’s assault on photographers who were waiting for him on a public street outside the New York City Marriage License Bureau this week, the distinction between the use of the pejorative “paparazzi” as a way to denigrate members of the media is not only unfortunate, but does a disservice to all photographers and journalists who strive to earn a living through visual storytelling.

As a former photojournalist with almost 40 years of experience in both print and broadcast journalism, I strongly believe in personal accountability for our actions and the importance of maintaining the credibility of our profession. I also agree that “accuracy in our work and integrity in our relationships with the public we serve are essential qualities for all photojournalists.” It is for that reason that I am a strong proponent of the NPPA Code of Ethics, which “attempts to foster the spirit of honesty in all aspects of our professional lives.”

In this era of tweets and live-streaming it is certainly important to get the news out fast, if not first; but accuracy should still be the overriding priority. Broadcasting or publishing the absolute latest information does not absolve the press of its obligation to be responsible. The public may wish to dwell in gossip and speculation but reporters, broadcasters, editors and publishers should not.

Which brings us back to the issue of who is a photojournalist and who is a paparazzo? A variety of sources define paparazzo as a noun referring to a freelance photographer who specializes in images of famous people for sale to magazines and newspapers while often invading their privacy to obtain such photographs or video. The word “paparazzi” is the plural of “paparazzo.”

The term gained popularity after the 1960 film La Dolce Vita, directed by Federico Fellini, in which one of the characters is a news photographer named Signor Paparazzo. It is said that Fellini used the word because in Italian it is similar to another word for small mosquito, and to the filmmaker was descriptive of the very annoying noise made by that buzzing insect. In the years since it has been used to describe Ron Galella and his photographic pursuit of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, leading to the case of Galella v Onassis and a restraining order keeping Galella a “respectful” distance away from the late First Lady and her children.

Over the years there have been numerous lawsuits by photographers who claim they were injured by celebrities, and some by celebrities who have sued to enjoin photographers from coming too close or invading their privacy.

The term “photojournalist,” on the other hand, refers to those dedicated to a specific aspect of journalism that captures still images and audio-visual recordings for public dissemination in print, by broadcast or online. It is widely understood that photojournalists adhere to strong ethical guidelines ensuring honest, objective and compelling images, created in a straightforward manner while remaining as unobtrusive as possible.

Standing on a sidewalk to take a picture of a celebrity does not make a photographer a paparazzi any more than if he or she were waiting to take a picture of a politician or a criminal. Photojournalists often risk their lives and sometimes are killed while covering wars, political uprisings and natural disasters. Would anyone think to call them paparazzi?

The so-called “legitimate press” has always sought to distinguish itself from the less-than-savory “tabloid paparazzi.” Lately traditional publishers also attempt to distinguish between “mainstream media” and citizen journalists, activists, and bloggers. But all groups use video and still images taken by the very people they distance themselves from in an attempt to compete which blurs the line and makes the definition of who is a journalist even more elusive. This in turn makes the public less trusting and ultimately undermines a free and vibrant press.

None of this absolves anyone of us from our responsibilities. No matter how quickly we deliver it, the message should still be worth hearing. No matter how up-close we can get, the images should still be worth viewing. No matter how advanced the technology, we are all still human.

When reporting on the altercation between New York Daily News photographer Marcus Santos and celebrity Alec Baldwin, it would be wise to look at Santos’ career before labeling him as a paparazzo. According to his website he has been a photojournalist since the late 1990’s with a long list of credits and awards. He prides himself on covering spot news, which is evidenced by his photos of the October, 2011 East River helicopter crash. He has also covered world events in Haiti, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Marcus tells me that he was dispatched by the Daily News to photograph Baldwin after the paper received a tip that he was at the marriage license bureau. So for anyone to say he is a paparazzo is not only grammatically incorrect, but totally inaccurate. In an interview with Charlie Rose after the incident, Baldwin also said that Marcus was not part of the “legitimate press” in a further attempt to justify his actions that day. Such self-serving comments are not only wrong but demean all photojournalists.

In a society increasingly reliant on information and communication, those in the media should be ever vigilant of their obligation to provide accurate, unbiased and timely information rather than rushing to fill space and time with the latest titillating revelations. That goes both for photojournalists who unintentionally get drawn into the story and for the journalists, editors and headline writers who report on those incidents.

Posted in Alec Baldwin, Assault on Photographers, Attack Photographers, Code of Ethics, National Press Photographers Association, News Photography, Newsgathering, NPPA, NY Daily News, Paparazzi, Paparazzo, photographers, Photographers' Rights, photojournalism | 8 Comments »

8 Responses to “Photojournalist or Paparazzo? A Distinction with a Difference”

  1.   Phil Says:

    I must say i get a little annoyed with the definition between paparazzi and photojournalist. Today more than ever as a photographer you have to be able to shoot everything as we watch sales plummet in all areas of photography.

    So for me one minute i am doing a one on one portrait with bill gates the next covering a court case but the bulk of my income comes from photographing celebrities.

    Now what type of photographer am i ? I gave up caring what people call me.

    I see news photographers being far more aggressive than most of the good celebrity photographers, for the most part a good celebrity gets his pictures and nobody even knows it was taken, good candid shots sell more than close up short lens stuff and its not because they are doing they should not be doing, more a case of they act natural and do not start acting for the camera.

    A large percentage of what you see in the magazines now is actually set up by celebrities where they receive most of the money from sales and control the image that goes out.

    So please do not believe everything you see, at the end of the day we are photographers all just trying to make a living.

  2.   David Blumenkrantz Says:

    It’s clear that Marcus Santos is not a member of the paparazzi. The media should report it that way. However, to be fair it’s not unreasonable that Baldwin assumed he was. The old saying, “he who lays down with dogs gets fleas” could be applicable here. Not to excuse Baldwin’s boorish behavior, but it’s just a shame that legitimate newspapers such as the Daily News feel the need to cover these celebrity stories….

  3.   Patrick Downs (@PatDownsPhotos) Says:

    Good points, Mickey. Having worked in LA for nearly 20 years for the LA Times, I have a lot of experience working around the “paps.” To call Santos one does him a real disservice, clearly, based on his resumé.

    Some of the paps in LA were not terrible to deal with, but I still avoided them when possible. Aggressive? Very (when they can make 5 or 6 figures with that one great–if rare–shot, you know why they are) but some were reasonably well-behaved and worked from a distance with longer lenses when they could. Some were like a plague of locusts … ill-mannered, odiferous, slovenly snappers whose only credentials were cameras, and were always in the faces of the celebs. I am afraid I might not take that too well were I the target, but assault is unacceptable.

    I always took the opportunity to educate ignoramuses who didn’t understand the difference between photojournalists from legitimate media (and I guess it’s a debate as to whether regular freelancers for the US tabloids are “legitimate”) and the paparazzi. I remember a press conference for the debut of a new Liz Taylor fragrance and Queen Liz was to be there herself. Unfortunately, I got the assignment, one of a few that day. When I arrived, there was one big bullpen for the photographers with some very sketchy paps already there in the front row (they had no day jobs, and so got there hours early). The PR gal tried to usher me in with them, I took one look around and said “No way.” She got upset, and I told her that I would not work side-by-side with the riff-raff, and that the tabloids or celeb photo agencies are not on par with LA Times and AP and others. I told her she needed to have a separate spot with a good view for the local news crews from legit outlets. I ended up having an intense conversation with the head flack, called my desk and told them I was going to leave and they backed me up, and finally we got our separate spot. To some I may have seemed like an elitist ass, but they needed to understand the difference between people like Santos, and the sketchier paps.

    The celebs want it both ways… to be famous, and have their privacy. That’s a big demand and maybe unrealistic. The publicists was to control everything, so that their clients are only flattered and look good. Too late for that, with all the outlets and voracious demand for celebrity images. It is interesting that people like George Clooney don’t seem to have the problems with the press and paps that Baldwin has, so maybe certain personalities play a big factor … bringing some of it on themselves.

  4.   Adam Carscadden Says:

    The author proposes that media outlets do not bother making the distinction between a photojournalist and a paparazzo. To this I ask, “So what?” Is it the outlet’s job to distinguish? I think no. It is their job to report, determine if what is being reported is fact and if the fact is time worthy. I would like to think that the employed photographers, however they are labeled, have already distinguished themselves even if it is only to them self. Granted, I often tend to land on the more fantastically optimistic and positive side of thinking.

    Mr Osterreicher directs us to the Daily Mail’s report of the event.

    I, for one, find that report to be blatantly judgmental and biased. However, the reader is free to come to his or her own conclusion.

    What I will say, regarding the Daily Mail’s account of the incident is that whatever else happened, it is made quite clear that Mr. Baldwin did not want his photo taken. I agree that a journalist has the right to report, but where, in this story, is the “integrity in our relationship with the public…”?

    “Standing on a sidewalk to take a picture of a celebrity does not make a photographer a paparazzi any more than if he or she were waiting to take a picture of a politician or a criminal”, says Mr. Osterreicher. This is true. It also does not make a photographer a paparazzo any less. Are there not politicians and criminals with as much celebrity as some entertainers? The difference here cannot possibly be the type of celebrity, because in this case, the celebrated Mr. Santos would surely have been waiting outside of a jail or politico building waiting to document “legitimate” world news, rather than the possibility of an actor becoming married. Of course that’s not the case because that is specifically what Mr. Osterreicher defines as the noun “paparazzo”.

    Be as it may that “New York Daily News photographer” Marcus Santos (as identified by the author) has covered world events in Haiti, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and as such rightfully qualifies him as a Photojournalist, it certainly does not preclude him from also being a Paparazzo. The author clearly directs attention to the accomplishments of Mr. Santos by listing previous work and sharing a link to the photographer’s website, while conveniently ignoring the acclaim that the “celebrity” (not the Academy Award Nominated Actor mind you) Alec Baldwin has received in his line of work. Even mentioning an Oscar nomination, Emmy win or possible mayoral aspirations (speculative or not) of Mr. Baldwin would lend even slightly more weight to the importance of going after this photo documentation. By placing so much emphasis on Mr. Santos’ work and so little on Mr. Baldwin’s, I can’t help but feel that Mr. Osterreicher deflates his own argument.

    I want to reiterate that my position is not to suggest that either party was right or wrong in their actions, rather, I would just like to respond to Mr. Osterreicher with the agreement that indeed, “those in the media should be ever vigilant of their obligation to provide accurate, unbiased and timely information”.

  5.   hasifleur Says:

    When a person ventures out into the public, he/she forsakes any expectation to the right of privacy. If a person seeks to become a media personality they gain a great deal of material rewards for the exposure. Along with that exposure comes the responsibility to act civilized and restrained in the face of the public adulation for which they sought the notoriety in the first place. If a person does not want to be under the eye of media scrutiny, he/she should stay out of it.

  6.   Neil Jacobs Says:

    I was a newspaper photographer for over 20-years and now work as a unit production still photographer in the TV and motion picture industry. I witness firsthand the paparazzi in action. I moved to Los Angeles several years ago and had a chance to work in environments where the paparazzi were also present.
    As a professional, I have to say that the typical paparrazo is ‘slime.’ No ethics. No sense of personal privacy and will go to extremes to get their photo usually through unethical and/or illegal methods. I have covered red-carpet events where they openly argue with each other over access and fight with the ‘legit’ photographers who are provided space for access. They feel they are justified to use any methods to get their shots because the people they pursue are public figures. I am ashamed to be a Los Angeles photographer because if I walk down the street with a pro camera its assumed that I am paparrazo. I’d love to post a photo of the paparazzi in action if you could provide me a link to post on.

  7.   daveo Says:

    Just to add my own 2 cents to the discussion, I think that what Mr. Osterreicher says, regarding “Photojournalist” versus “Paparazzo”, while all true, falls into the category of a “distinction without a difference”. I.e., if it looks like a duck, etc. etc….
    Santos is indeed a professional photojournalist, but in this instance, he was primarily in the role of a paparazzo…if one does not want to be lumped into that group, don’t engage in the behaviors which categorize it: Turn down assignments which involve photographing celebrities which are only of interest because they are, indeed, celebrities (no actual news value).

  8.   Neil Jacobs Says:

    I have to agree with daveo. “NO ACTUAL NEWS VALUE.” The problem with hasifleur’s comments is this attitude that “When a person ventures out into the public, he/she forsakes any expectation to the right of privacy.” That is the typical pap’s response. Of course, out-in-public is legit, but everyone has a right to privacy. My definition of invasion of privacy is if the photographer has to resort to unusual means (such as climbing overa wall) to get the photo, then privacy is being invaded.

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