Memories of working on the photo desk of the world’s most infamous photo agency.
Publishing The Reprobate does not, you may be shocked to hear, bring in a huge disposable income that enables us to wallow in the lap of luxury. On occasions, your editor has been forced to seek gainful employment elsewhere to cover the costs of extravagances such as food and heating, and at one point, that led – through a series of unlikely events that need not worry anyone at this point – to working for Big Pictures, the world’s most notorious paparazzi organisation. For those of you unaware – and I imagine that’s most of you – Big Pictures was the agency run by Darryn Lyons, the pink-mohawked Australian with fake abs and a huge ego who was briefly famous in his own right. It wasn’t my proudest moment, but needs must.
The job did not involve me hanging around outside glamourous nightspots, camera in hand, waiting on minor celebrities to stumble out in the early hours. Instead, I sat in an office, waiting for the results of such C-list stalking to pour in from assorted photographers around the world, at which point I would caption the images and send them electronically to assorted news sources who would then bid on them accordingly. Time, in these cases, was of the essence – because apparently, a photo of some Big Brother star who had pissed his trousers while leaving a dreadful Soho nightspot (a particularly memorable image, that one) was only hot news for a few hours. Such are the demands of the celebrity news outlets, which only have time for the hottest, freshest pointless gossip about unimportant people who might well no longer be famous if they wait a few days to publish.
The writing was, perhaps, on the wall from the first day, when I was shown how to use the software by some fuckwit who, as he looked at newly-arrived images, failed to recognise The Red Hot Chilli Peppers but could immediately name every single member of The Saturdays (who were, in case you’d forgotten, some here today, gone later today girl group). Awareness of every fly-by-night celebrity seemed to be a job requirement and had there been any sort of proper interview process for this position, I almost certainly would’ve failed it. But there wasn’t and I didn’t. Sure enough, a major problem with the job as far as I was concerned would be trying to work out just who the assorted no-marks featured in most of the photos were, the snappers rarely bothering to attach captions or any sort of information to their hurriedly uploaded images, even though – to my surprise – most photos were simply red carpet affairs from the openings, premieres and VIP parties of non-events: to give you an idea of how glittering and star-studded these events generally were, at one point I found myself looking at stills from the premiere of Strippers vs Werewolves, a film you might reasonably not have thought justified a glitzy opening bash. At least I could recognise Jonathan Sothcott.
As the only member of staff seen as vaguely mature and reliable, I found myself placed on the night shift of this job – because pap work is a 24/7 affair, with the hottest stuff obviously coming in after midnight when these important events were all over and the passingly famous hit the town. Night shifts are fucking awful, as some of you probably know, though there were advantages: I could take my laptop in and get on with my own work, surf the internet and watch movies during the downtime – because pretty much nothing would happen for the first few hours, and if it did, the work could easily be pushed back for a while. As long as the incoming folders were empty by the time I logged off, all was good. I could even sign in and then pop out to the pub if necessary, as it was on a couple of occasions when the Mayhem Festival chaps were screening films. And of course, there was some amusement to be had. One foreign snapper once called up the office aghast because he had wasted his time shooting images of Jessie J at a music festival. “Who is she?” he moaned, “no one here has heard of her. What does she do?” I reassured him that The Sun might want a photo of her, though in truth it seemed doubtful – even in 2012, no one seemed interested in Jessie J anymore.
Big Pictures had, in the past, been sued by celebs for shocking invasions of privacy, and seemed to have turned over a new leaf by the time I came to be employed by them. While I had to report to the aforementioned fuckwit in the London office each morning and noted the framed newspaper page featuring a photo of Kylie Minogue topless on the beach behind him – clearly their proudest contribution to modern culture – upskirts, nip slips and other stables of the pap world were no longer approved of, and there was a special code for captioning images. If a celebrity was clearly pissed out of their head, then you had to say that they “looked like they had been enjoying themselves”, lest their lawyers pounced – after all, how could we prove that they were hammered?. For similar legal reasons, I won’t say which already controversial movie star – already convicted of drink-driving – was photographed clearly pissed as a fart in a series of shots that began with him pointing aggressively at the photographer and ended, somewhat worryingly, with him slumped over the wheel of his car. As far as I know, those pictures never saw the light of day. I rather suspect that a lot of material was quietly buried either because publishers wanted to keep ‘stars’ on board or else were bought off. In retrospect, I should’ve kept a personal file of these things for private amusement, but my interest in celebrities – even celebrities disgracing themselves publicly – has never been high.
Still, these depressingly rare moments of shameful disgrace were what made things remotely bearable. Clearly, not all the photographers had got the message about no longer going for scandalous shots, and while pix of starlets falling out of their clothes were depressingly rare, I’ll always treasure the photo of a female movie star where the snapper had helpfully included a pixelated close-up of the white grains at the end of her nostril, just in case we missed it in the main shot and didn’t realise that she was coked off her face. Now and again, a series of red carpet shots from sexy events like Exxxotica or such would arrive, and they always livened the night up (and were, ironically, the ones where I was most able to identify most of the participants). But on the whole, it was a soul-destroying existence, trying to identify nobodies – the sort who would literally turn up to the opening of anything at all and eventually became recognisable simply because of their almost-nightly appearances at one dismal event after another – and then write sales-worthy captions for endless collections of generic opening night images, the same event often shot by several different photographers. The paparazzi world seemed very, very boring. This was not La Dolce Vita by any stretch of the imagination. There was no glamour in this. Worse still, there was no sleaze.
And no money either, as it turned out. Rather than officially having fixed hours (which, of course, I absolutely had), I needed to invoice for the time worked – the old zero-hours contract, essentially – which went well for the first two months, but then fell apart when, despite weekly promises that it had been sorted out and the money was being/had been deposited in my bank account, no payment for the third month arrived. Of course, by the time I lost patience with the lies, another month had gone by – during which I had continued working for these bastards, thinking that surely it must be sorted out this week. What I didn’t know was that Big Pictures was on the verge of collapse, and indeed went into administration a month after I finally lost patience and told them to fuck off. Everyone lost their jobs and those of us owed money – some five grand in my case – were bottom of the list after banks and major creditors, doomed never to see a penny.
The heyday of the paparazzi as both gutter press filth hounds and chroniclers of passing celebrity is long over – the first cracks caused by the death of Princess Diana, widened by privacy and harassment laws used selectively by people who have courted fame and attention all their adult lives, and finally crushed by the #metoo movement – where photos of the rich and famous either accidentally or deliberately nude have been reinterpreted as sexual assaults – and the social justice world, where the fat/thin/whatever-shaming headlines of the tabloids and the celebrity mags are increasingly frowned on by commenters. The pap world was already gasping its last during my brief time at Big Pictures, and there might well have been some correlation between the ban on embarrassing images and the decline of the business – for all their outrage over Diana and the later phone-hacking scandals, the truth is that no one was buying newspapers like The News of the World for their journalism or stage-managed photos of movie stars and pop idols. The truth is that, for all the calls to #bekind, the public still love shame and scandal. Without it, the publications that have thrived on that sort of thing for years are going to struggle because ignoring the desires of its own readers in order to placate the views of people who wouldn’t touch their publications with a barge pole under any circumstances is invariably going to see a collapse in sales.
I can’t say that I’ll miss the pap world when it finally coughs its last – if that ever happens. That industry was as responsible as anything for the interminable and unbearable rise of celebrity culture, where nobodies rise to prominence by virtue of whoring themselves to every media outlet and become famous for being famous. But if we have to have people of no discernable talent treated as though they are stars because of appearances on contrived reality shows, marriages of convenience and minor scandals, then we should at least be able to scoff at them as they make fools of themselves, be it lying in a gutter soaked in piss, flashing too much when stumbling out of a taxi or being caught snorting lines in some Soho nightclub toilet. It seems a fair exchange, especially as – like ‘leaked’ porn videos – these attention-hungry nobodies are usually in on it from the start anyway. After all, all publicity is good publicity if you are desperate for fame.
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