In the New York Times on Tuesday, Jenna Wortham chronicled how a photograph of Beyoncé and her daughter Blue Ivy, who has been relatively shielded from the public eye, traveled from a personal Instagram feed into the pages of many gossip publications. The rise of photo distribution services like Instagram, Wortham argues, poses a challenge to paparazzi, whose market may be undercut by amateurs who happen to be in the right place at the right time.
Wortham spoke to Molly Goodson, a senior editor at PopSugar, one of the sites that bought the image of Beyonce and her daughter.
The average person has eyes in places where regular paparazzi don't have them, [Goodson] said. "The whole world becomes a photo agency at that point. More so than ever before."
The entrance of ordinary people with relatively high-quality cameras on their cell phones also raises questions about the ethics of how to treat celebrities when they're simply going about town like the rest of us. Paparazzi may be willing to be more aggressive than the average citizen — it's hard to imagine that ordinary citizens would engage in high-speed car chases or tangle with bodyguards as a regular part of doing business — and have better cameras. But they aren't everywhere. They take time to mobilize and show up. They can be negotiated with, trading exclusive snaps for promises to back off.
Average people, as Goodson notes, are everywhere. And while they've always been eager to take photos and video of celebrities — Vanessa Grigoriadis' 2008 Rolling Stone profile of Britney Spears opened with the singer being swamped at a mall — the opportunity to be a semi-professional photographer ups the stakes for fans who previously might have only wanted snaps for their personal enjoyment. What happens when the girl who says she wants to take a picture of Britney for her sister turns around and sells it? Also, the telephoto lenses paparazzi use make it possible to capture a good shot from a distance. Paparazzi get in celebrities' faces to try to provoke reactions, but what happens when amateurs need to get close to get a saleable shot at all? And while paparazzi are obnoxious, they're constrained by some basic laws of the market that will never govern individuals: Their agencies often need to maintain at least decent relationships with celebrities and their management to get access to red carpets and semi-private parties.
Turning the whole world into a photo agency increases the incentives for amateurs to swarm celebrities in even greater numbers. And I wouldn't be surprised if it ultimately eliminates those spontaneous, gracious encounters between celebrities and the people who love them — a small loss, but still a sad one. Why trust an excited-seeming person with a camera when anyone and everyone has the capacity to sell you out?
Rosenberg writes about culture and television for Slate's "XX Factor" blog.