The celebrity photo in the Age of Instagram.

By Melissa Batchelor Warnke

Lately it seems like everywhere you turn, someone is mounting a vigorous if rear-guard sounding defense of journalism and journalists. The airing of a dramatic ode to the ink-stained staff of the Washington Post, voiced by Tom Hanks in the middle of the Super Bowl, brought this wholesome Trump-era phenomenon to the door of parody. There is, however, one subset of journalist few would include in the nation’s ongoing paean: the paparazzi.

With the flush, panty-flashing 90s and aughts in the rearview mirror, paparazzi increasingly find themselves the lonesome denizens of a shrinking, stigmatized space. Never much respected by traditional journalists, they now confront an existential crisis as serious as that faced by the dwindling corps of City Hall reporters in small and mid-size cities. But unlike the complex and murky shifts that have led to the shuttering of so many newsrooms across the country, the driving forces behind the paparazzi’s crisis are easier to identify. Namely, the enemy is Instagram, with an assist by the California appellate court that in 2015 upheld the so-called Anti-Paparazzi Law, which strenghthens privacy rights.

Social media, and Instagram in particular, has given celebrities an immediate, managed channel to their fans that paparazzi can’t provide. The rise of this new celebrity image regime has simultaneously increased transparency in celebrity journalism (there’s no question about whether photos were staged when they come directly from the subject) and drastically decreased it (there’s less access to unmediated celebrity images than ever). The new celebrity image, curated and self-controlled, offers casual access to private spaces like kitchens and home gyms that paparazzi, by their very nature, cannot reach. Despite their limitations, these “inside looks” have diminished the public’s appetite for surprise snaps of stars stepping out of cars. They are also much less expensive for media outlets, which can reference social media shots for free. At the height of the market, a single shot of Naomi Campbell or Britney Spears doing something banal could easily pull tens of thousands of dollars.

“If you want a shot, you can still go to Chateau Marmont or Craig’s,” one celebrity publicist told me. “But they’re not going to chase you all around town like they did ten — hell, even five — years ago.” The old chase has largely been eclipsed by the winking game, as when Kourtney Kardashian recently emerged from Nobu Malibu with a “mystery man.” (If you want your man to remain a mystery, you don’t take him to Nobu Malibu.) “If you’re a celebrity and you really want to live your life without cameras in front of your face, you can do it now, even in Los Angeles,” notes Josh Azriel, a Kennesaw State University professor who studies California paparazzi.

Celebrity social media accounts now function as image banks and press handlers, announcing anything from a pregnancy to a brand partnership — with subsequent media “reporting” consisting of narrating the announcement. “When I watch ‘Good Morning America’ with my wife and there’s a segment about a celebrity losing a lot of weight or doing a big charity cause, that celebrity’s not even interviewed,” Azriel says. “The hosts are getting all the information from their Instagram account. That’s a brand-new approach to celebrity journalism.”

What this means for the human picture of those who made their living selling celebrity images is as bleak as you’d expect. They’re refinancing their homes, getting second jobs, or leaving the business altogether. As to the structural picture, we can hardly lament that fewer paparazzi are driving celebs to crash their cars or hiding outside their homes. But this relationship is three-sided. Against the celebrity and the paparazzi lie the rest of us.

What these changes mean for the public depends on which public you’re talking about. As a grown woman, I experience a shot of a celebrity looking normal, sweaty and makeup-free on her way out of a yoga class pretty similarly to how I do a highly-contoured Insta story her team has blown to death with editing; neither changes my life. But when I was nine or 12 or 17, images of celebrities helped me understand how glamour was constituted, how bodies should be. For teenagers, it might just feel like communion to see a celebrity mess unfold in real time. The space between when certain questions are asked and answered — what the fuck is going on here, and will it ever ease? — can be the space of years. There’s some relief in seeing that space truthfully chronicled instead of crafted, wrapped and sold at its conclusion.

To me, mid-aughts glamour was Lindsay Lohan, a fellow freckled redhead in my Mean Girls-orbiting world. She was also, quite publicly, falling apart. Shots of her passed out gape-mouthed in the passenger seat of a car put the lie to the composed picture. Were they exploitative? There was no crawling under fences involved, if that’s what you’re asking; the images were captured in public space. But they garnered widespread press coverage, including in the New York Times, and opened a window for mockery of her substance abuse. I imagine that coverage was horrible for her. For consumers, it continued to complicate what had initially appeared a straight narrative: child actress finds ever-greater success.

The odd, unsettling paparazzi image that tells a bigger story still sneaks through, as when Ben Affleck’s back tattoo earned its own New Yorker piece. But it happens less and less. Celebrities now tend to stumble in private and rise in public (or else die, suddenly). Rough edges sanded down, celebrities’ self-narrated stories of triumph — over body image issues, addiction, anxiety — are often banal, cryptic, even indistinguishable. Life and death struggles make for dull captions, told with all the urgency and investment of a dream scripted by a luxury-brand sponsor.

A more pointed question, then: Do we as a public now, or did we ever, deserve the comfort of others’ full lives? It’s no coincidence that our most cherished public figures — take Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Princess Diana, for instance — are often tormented by the very paparazzi who procure some of their most iconic images. Onassis secured a permanent injunction against legendary paparazzo Ron Galella, whom she battled in court for years. The Princess, hounded ‘til her death, called the paparazzi’s attention “overwhelming” and “hard to bear.” It was the mixture of humanity and glamour that made them beloved, yet the best chroniclers of that mixture were those they considered adversaries.

This same uneasy dynamic is at play today as celebrities, emboldened by their increased ability to communicate with us directly, demand ever-greater control over media. This can be in text, as A-listers agree to cover magazines only when their friends shoot them softballs. (See Jennifer Lawrence interviewing Emma Stone for Elle, a mind-numbing exercise in the avoidance of meaning.) It can also be through provided images — or a lack thereof. (See Selena Gomez’s long breaks from social media, which cost her the title of Instagram’s most-followed person.) But the paparazzi help keep celebrities in a broader cultural conversation that extends beyond their immediate fanbase and followers. And there lies their enduring value.

They also, it should be said, take more compelling shots. In a strange reversal, celebrities have been sued for using paparazzi images on their social media without tagging the photographers; a current suit by the photo agency Xclusive alleges that the model Gigi Hadid’s Instagram account “includes at least fifty examples of uncredited photographs of Hadid in public, at press events, or on the runway.” Hadid has used the platform to argue that “her privacy is being unreasonably intruded upon” by the paparazzi. Fair enough. And yet, she continues to share the images paparazzi make. As in all codependent relationships, resentment and utility are deeply intertwined. Last night, Kim Kardashian made waves when she tweeted that, irritated with restrictive laws, she’d essentially hired her own in-house paparazzo.

For many paparazzi, the changes wrought by Instagram have been career-ending. For celebrities, they’ve been largely positive. For the rest of us — those that the stars are allegedly “just like” — the shift provokes more open, generative, and interesting questions.

Melissa Batchelor Warnke is a writer living in Los Angeles, where she covers gender, power, and pop culture. She is a contributing opinion writer for the Los Angeles Times. Follow her on Twitter @velvetmelvis.

Production Details
V. 1.0.1
Last edited: February 11, 2019
Author: Melissa Batchelor Warnke
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Additional editing: Jeff Koyen, Michael Quinones
Illustration: Instagram / @kimkardashian