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  • Pictures at a High Price

    By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, September 1, 1997; Page A01

    Last May, Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger were briefly trapped in their Mercedes when two London tabloid photographers in separate cars forced them off the road outside Los Angeles. The men, Giles Harrison and Andrew O'Brien, were trying to get exclusive shots of the pregnant Shriver as she and her husband were taking their son to school. The photographers were charged with misdemeanors, and O'Brien with battery for shoving the school's principal.

    The incident barely caused a ripple in today's jaded media culture. Paparazzi, after all, routinely and relentlessly pursue famous figures in search of pictures that can be marketed to the highest bidder.

    But what was once widely considered international sport, or a mere hazard of fame, turned chillingly dangerous in the early hours of Sunday morning in Paris, where a car accident killed Princess Diana and her friend Dodi Fayed as their driver raced to elude several paparazzi on cars and motorcycles.

    "This is ugly," said Steve Coz, editor of the National Enquirer, who admits that he often buys celebrity photographs without knowing how they were obtained. "It's getting crazy. It's changed from just observation to hunting people."

    Nearly everyone in the media food chain has feasted on the fruits of these celebrity stalkers, creating a lucrative market for their hastily snapped shots of the powerful at play. While the British tabloids and American supermarket papers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for such pictures -- often taken from blacked-out vans or planes or boats -- the images are often recycled by the mainstream papers, magazines, wire services and TV shows. Thus the establishment press can titillate readers and viewers while disdaining the tawdry tactics involved.

    "In every profession there are people who go too far, who stretch notions of ethics and decency to the limit and beyond," said David Lutman, president of the National Press Photographers Association. "It's had a dramatic effect on our image. The marketplace has pushed some aspects of photography in the direction of pursuit journalism. Somebody's purchasing this stuff.

    "All of us ought to be thinking, was this necessary?" he said. "High-speed chases are clearly a deplorable extreme."

    In this environment, almost anyone can suddenly become the figure in the viewfinder. Local camera crews, for example, will stake out the home of parents whose child has just been killed, hoping to capture the raw emotion on videotape.

    At a time when polls show dwindling public confidence in journalists, the death of the 36-year-old Princess of Wales could become one of those seminal events that convince millions that the news media are out of control. The ongoing clash between those who wave the banner of the First Amendment and those who want to protect their private lives is perhaps the most visible part of a noisy debate over intrusive media behavior.

    Diana's brother, Charles, the ninth Earl Spencer, said yesterday that he always knew the press would kill her, and his comment suddenly seems less than hyperbolic. His sister was a woman who frequently complained she could not go to an exercise class -- or, in one case, to her therapist -- without a half-dozen shutterbugs snapping away.

    Spencer had his own run-ins with one of South Africa's leading paparazzi, Fanie Jason, who once got inside his home by posing as a worker in overalls, his camera stashed in a lunch box. Jason, who revealed the earl's relationship with a new girlfriend, was ordered by a court to stay at least 10 meters away from Spencer and had some of his camera equipment seized.

    In the process, Jason became something of a celebrity himself; Britain's Guardian newspaper described him as "one of South Africa's new breed of big game hunter."

    Those who engage in such pursuits insist they are simply feeding the public appetite. Russell Turiak, a tabloid photographer in New York, photographed Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith's wedding in Aspen, Colo., from a helicopter, and earned six figures for his shots of John F. Kennedy Jr. and the former Carolyn Bessette honeymooning in Turkey.

    "My feeling is that I am the messenger," Turiak said. "What are you going to do here -- kill the messenger? People buy the pictures. This fan-addict mentality, the hunger for the information -- isn't the public then responsible? . . . The easiest person to blame is the guy out there taking the pictures."

    Besides, he said, "I have a mortgage."

    The right to visual privacy was first asserted in the 1890s by a prominent Harvard professor, Samuel Warren, who was upset that photographers had invaded his daughter's wedding. Since then, according to media instructor Elliot King of Loyola College in Baltimore, the courts have been reluctant to criminalize such behavior.

    The original paparazzi were Italian street photographers who specialized in exposing the secrets of movie stars. One such photographer, Tazio Secchiaroli, was the model for the character Paparazzo in Federico Fellini's 1960 film "La Dolce Vita." Even he says some of his colleagues have overstepped the bounds of good taste.

    "But on the other hand," Secchiaroli told Reuter, "I don't see why [celebrities] try to run away from paparazzi. At a certain point, they should just let themselves be photographed and move on."

    Before Diana, the world's most photographed woman was probably Jacqueline Onassis. In 1975, she obtained a court order requiring photographer Ron Galella to stay at least 25 feet from her and 30 feet from her children. In 1982, after violating the order, Galella agreed not to take any more pictures of the former first lady.

    Such legal tangles were rare before the birth of tabloid TV shows in the mid-'80s. But as television greatly increased the market for such pictures, and the demand for ever more exposure of ever more celebrities, a growing number of stars have been fighting back.

    Last year, actor George Clooney organized a boycott against the Paramount Pictures television group after one of its programs, "Hard Copy," violated an agreement not to do stories about him. Joined by Madonna (whom "Hard Copy" filmed with her baby through the windows of her home), Whoopi Goldberg, Steven Spielberg and others, the actors said they would no longer cooperate with such Paramount shows as "Entertainment Tonight."

    Paramount later agreed not to air celebrity video obtained surreptitiously or through harassment.

    Actor Alec Baldwin took matters into his own hands. The movie star accosted Alan Zanger, shoving the photographer's camera into his face after he attempted to take pictures of Baldwin's wife, Kim Basinger, as she brought their baby home from the hospital in 1995. Baldwin was acquitted of misdemeanor battery; Zanger filed a $1 million lawsuit against him.

    Some paparazzi regard such confrontations almost as a badge of honor. Photographer Turiak boasts that he was assaulted by Burt Reynolds after taking pictures of the actor and his then-girlfriend, Loni Anderson. "I was walking away and he punched me in the back of the head," Turiak said. "That actually brought me quite a bit of notoriety."

    Coz of the Enquirer says he is bidding against People magazine (which has run 43 Diana covers over the years) for the last pictures of the princess before the crash. "There's this tremendous obsession in the public for celebrity information," he said. "Everyone has dipped into celebrity coverage, from the big networks to Time and Newsweek. It's money -- celebrities sell."

    Coz says he will not buy any of the crash scene photos, which he says are being offered for $1 million, as a way of protesting the methods of what he calls the "stalkerazzi."

    Actor Tom Cruise says he was followed by paparazzi in the same Paris tunnel where Diana was killed. "You don't know what it's like being chased by them," he told CNN. "It is harassment under the guise of, you know, `We are the press, we are entitled.' And when people are having a private moment, they should be allowed to have a private moment."

    Special correspondent Devon Spurgeon contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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