One of my firsts jobs as a boy was as a paperboy. This was the 90s. We would go to the local newsagents at about midnight on a Saturday night, and wait for the stacks of the Sunday Papers to be delivered on the truck. The time they arrived was never reliable; maybe there was a big story and the editor has yelled “Stop The Press!” and wait until the big story had come through.
When it did arrive we put single papers through a machine that wrapped them up in cling film and stack them into the back of the car. which was then driven around the neighbourhood- and this was the best part- we got to throw the papers out of the back window of the car into the subscribers lawn. It was fun.
During the down time while we waited for the big truck to deliver this weeks Sunday Paper, we would flick through the comics and magazines. I become very up to date with all of the gossip magazines- I knew the royal family inside and out. (Fergie getting her toes sucked by some gentlemen not her husband the prince was quite the scandal.)
Fast Forward to my 20s and I was working now as a bartender in the trendy neighbourhood of Soho in London. The place is electric, alive every night of the week and in every way imaginable. On the way to work one day I took my normal route through Leicester Square, the red carpet was out for a film premier- a well crafted ‘spontaneous public space’- surrounded by many screaming girls. It was all very staged and co-ordinated; Lots of flashing cameras. Leonardo DiCaprio in the middle of it all playing the designated role of Movie Star. Journalist in the taped off section. Quite the scene. It made me smile. I thought to myself, “I really am amongst the centre of world here”.
I loved it.
Months later, after finishing work, me and the other bartenders had finished kicking out all the patrons and cleaned up their mess, drinking a nice hard earned pint relaxing before the trek home. One the other lads comes running in from outside and yells “Amy Winehouse is at the Dodo’s!”
(Dodo’s was the tiny shoebox sized corner store that was open 24 hours.)
“She is buying a pack of smokes and cant get out cause all the paparazzi are blocking the door!”
It turned out that Amy and her father were playing at surprise intimate gig at the jazz bar around the corner.
She had popped out to buy a pack of cigarettes.
We all immediately jumped up to run out the front to see this. At the time she was one of the biggest stars in the world- in the news nearly every day due to battling her drug issues, marriage breakdowns, on stage dramas- but also because of her huge talent. I had her albums. I knew, and still do every word to ‘Back to Black’.
What we saw when she left the corner store will stay with me forever: a teeny tiny woman, being hounded by at minimum 15 men.
You know how people say “I caught a fish and it was tttt-hhhhhhh-iiiiiiii-ssssssss BIG, but it got away!” You always know to take the size of the fish with a grain of salt?
Me saying there were 15 men with cameras is already rounding the estimate down.
They all had huge cameras, with giant flashes. It was the middle of the night, but she was lit up like a construction crew was doing work in the dead of night. excpet it wasn’t quiet like the dead of night. It was loud. The men were yelling. They were screaming.
SCREAMING SCREAMING SCREAMING.
AMY! LOOK HERE!
HAVE YOU GOT ANY DRUGS AMY?
SHOW US YOUR TITS!
COME ON AMY GET YOUR TITS OUT!!!!
over and over and over again.
Amy was shielding her eyes and doing what she could to try and walk in a straight line to get back to the jazz bar. She was thwarted by these men deliberately jumping in her path, making her have to zig and zag to try and get through the gamut and screaming men. Every time she seemed to have a way forward another one of them would throw themselves in her path.
On the side walk were the audience to this spectacle- this public performance. We were excited to see this famous woman, in the flesh.
She must experience this madness 24 hours a day. Its no wonder she had a drug problem. After she had passed us we all went back inside the bar. Excited with the brush with fame. She was dead within months.
At the time my stomach turned over the ethical dilemma. I had basically participated in the humiliation and harassment of this woman. I felt sick.
Imagine popping into the shops to grab something and having to deal with that everyday all the time, every where you go. No space is sacred. No reprieve.
When I got home I turned on my laptop and went to perezhilton.com. Sure enough, the photos of Winehouse walking down the street were published, as well as pictures of her and her father on stage in the jazz club.
It dawned on me, that by clicking on that link, I was just as responsible for the publication of that photo, and the trauma the subject of the photo had suffered, as the photographer themselves.
By opening up the magazine, I was creating the flash of the camera. I clicked the link at home, and by doing so in extention I clicked the flash of the camera on the street. I was guilty, and I knew it.
There is a disassociation, a disconnection, between them and us.
But really there is not.
We consuming the content are in fact creating it.
The public space is open for everyone.
I immediately stopped visiting the gossip sites, but that hasn’t stopped me clicking on gossip stories run by what you would consider to be reputable media outlets.
I’ve often thought back to that night, and tried to reflect on ways I could curb my behaviour to ensure I am not participating in the stolen privacy of the street; this rape of privacy really.
So we are left to ponder the big philosophical questions regarding the public space and media content- when can something done in public still be private? What makes public space ethnography effective- what safeguards should we put in place?
Joe Colberg obviously has some level of decency that the paparazzi that i saw in action clearly did not.
I don’t know the answer to the tension that exist between freedom of speech and freedom to privacy.
In the heyday of Hollywood, the only photos of stars like Joan Crawford were ones that were released by the studios. Approved and consented too. Perhaps the media should go back to those days. Amy Winehouse was a product; but every time she stepped out in public the media would steal her image, plaster it on their magazines and websites, and make profit from this- not giving her a red cent. It drove her to her death.
Perhaps if an image is taken and published, the subject of the image needs to be re-reimbursed for its publication, or approval need to be given before it is published. As you would expect, it comes back to consent. Unless the subject of the image is doing something illegal; we all have the right to exist in the public sphere without harassment.
Some such as Tony Rogers have suggested that due to cameras on mobile phones, we are all now by definition, citizen journalist. I think it would be more accurate to say that we are all now paparazzi.
I’m not sure of the answer- But I am interested in your thoughts.