Paparazzi – ethics and covert photography

Confessions of the paparazzi, Channel4 , 9pm, Monday 6 February 2017

This was a tv programme about the working life of George Bamby, paparazzi photographer.  It raised some interesting questions about the ethics of covert people photography that is relevant to the course, especially exercise 2.2.

Bamby is perhaps the most notorious of celebrity photographers, known for his questionable intrusive techniques and acting on the edge of privacy laws.

Many people would start from the viewpoint that the paparazzi occupy the less savoury end of the spectrum of photography.  His earning potential is derived from exploitative images of celebrities without makeup, in compromising positions or otherwise behaving contrary to their carefully honed public persona.  He makes special reference to Dawn French in the programme as someone who has taken court proceedings against him on previous occasions.

Surely everyone has a right to a private life?

Several times in the programme he admits to taking a photograph in an opportunist way then fabricating a story around it to invent context and narrative for a magazine editor.  For example, he photographs a Poldark actor on the set smoking a vaporiser and embellishes it with a story about the crew having an argument on set with him about his constant use it it.  His justification is that the  actor “stays in the public eye, the magazine earns money, I earn money, everyone is happy.”

But he also makes the valid point that these people are very wealthy from being in the public eye.  So surely he has the right to earn a modest income from photographing people who have chosen a career path to be in the public gaze anyway?

I’d add a further point that media photographers often get a bad name for airbrushing models to create ‘perfect’ faces and bodies.  This distorts our perception of reality.  It is argued that impressionable young girls see this as ‘normal’ then suffer mental illness, unnecessary plastic surgery and anorexia as a result.  Isn’t Bamby simply maki g the point that celebrities are just normal people too?

As photographers we must all be guilty of ‘enhanching’ the narrative behind a shot to give it stronger context and meaning at some point?

is the ethical boundary money? Is it ok to take compromising photographs for artistic purposes but not to profit at the expense of others? What about war photographers who get paid for putting dead bodies on our screens?  At the end of the programme I surprised myself by having more sympathy with him than I did at the start.

But while the images make money, can be amusing and act as a natural counterbalance to the inflating egos of the rich and famous, they can’t be said to have any meaning.  They are record shots of someone famous at a point in time but no more.

One thing I’ve already learned to appreciate from my studies is that meaning is an essential component of a successful image.

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