Are Street Photographers More Unethical Than Paparazzi?

As a street photographer, I feel conflicted about the paparazzi and how they go about their work.

I believe a photographer should have the right to create images freely in a public space. For almost a decade, I’ve argued with non-street photographers about whether or not the art form should be allowed. Paparazzi certainly crosses over into the world of street photography. The only difference is the subject with paparazzi remains the same – celebrities. But while I’ll fight for the right to make the candid frame, I can’t say I’m entirely on the side of those who photograph celebs.

“Whether they’re stalking celebrities on the street or waiting outside their homes, paparazzi don’t seem to care much about how their work impacts their subjects.”

Paparazzi Vs. Street Photography

Before I get into this, I first want to make something clear. I have several friends who are or have been celeb photographers. I know them well enough to know they are good people, and that they do what they do/did to earn a living (some of them, a very good living). But that doesn’t mean I’m in full agreement with how we, the photo industry, approach celebrity culture.

When I think about the differences between street photographers and paparazzi, I look at how people approach each genre. Street photographers have an interest in all walks of life. They observe different scenes, good and bad, and create images that are true to life. Are they free from a controversial approach? No. Some are aggressive in the way they shoot. They’ll take advantage of people less fortunate, or they’ll jump out and pop a flash in the face of an unexpecting pedestrian. But all in all, the street photography community respects the ethics of the genre.

Paparazzi, on the other hand, don’t bring with it as clean a reputation. Whether they’re stalking celebrities on the street or waiting outside their homes, paparazzi don’t care much about how their work impacts their subjects.

Like the mental breakdown of Britney Spears and the tragic death of Princess Diana, high profile examples have shown celeb photography at its worst. You only have to go on YouTube to see the many examples of celebrities being pushed to the breaking point due to the aggressive way celeb photographers work.

Paparazzi Vs. Celebrities

The argument goes that if celebrities don’t like dealing with paparazzi, they shouldn’t become famous. There’s some truth to that, especially today. The desire to be famous has undoubtedly increased over the past 20 years. In the modern era, being famous may be born out of something as simple as a viral video. Many of those who crave to be known are happy to achieve fame without very little skill or effort. Reality TV shows and social media are the stepping stones for the untalented celeb. For that category of fame, one would assume they need the likes of celeb photographers to ensure they remain relevant.

“The likes of Instagram and Twitter have only deepened the craving to know what our favorite singers and actors are doing. And as the demand continues, so will the amount of content created; paparazzi aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, nor is their approach.”

But for many celebrities, being famous wasn’t their only goal. They wanted to develop their talent. Why can’t musicians create and distribute their art while being treated humanely? Why can’t an actor, who spends countless hours developing their character, be able to do so without having every inch of their private life photographed? Answer this: why has society accepted it must be a necessary consequence for their personal success?

I’m not suggesting we should never photograph celebrities. But, I feel society has lost its awareness of boundaries. For example, at a press event, it’s totally fine for the media to be there to document it. But, why do we think it’s okay to follow a celebrity around randomly in the street or take photos of their private vacation? Can’t we just let them be? I’m sure that’s all that most of the celebrities would want.

The problem, however, isn’t just paparazzi, it’s us.

Celebrities Vs. Society

Society has long put celebrities on a pedestal. Seen as some God-like creatures, society’s infatuation with celebrity culture has only increased with time. People want to know their favorite celebrity’s every move. What are they eating? Where are they going? Who are they dating? The obsession with the personal lives of those that entertain us is extremely toxic, and creates a demand that’s unrealistic when we think of the mental stability of those adored.

Society has asked for a product, and paparazzi are on hand to give it to them. If we want the approach of the media to change, then the demand has to change.

Sadly, any chance of that happening is slim. The likes of Instagram and Twitter have only deepened the craving to know what our favorite singers and actors are doing. And as the demand continues, so will the amount of content created; paparazzi aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, nor is their approach.

Final Thought

To those on the inside, street photography and celeb photography are not comparable. The former is free and fluid, while the latter beats to the public’s drums and demands of media moguls. But to the outsider, both seem as equally invasive. They’re not. I respect my friends who have worked as or with paparazzi; I don’t doubt they’re good people. However, I feel they’re part of a machine that automatically asks for unethical standards. It’s the nature of the beast.

As for street photography, I’m good with that for the most part. And I’ll continue to fight for the right shoot the candid frame.