Celebrities hit back at the paparazzi

Sick and tired of being stalked by photographers, Hollywood stars are adopting a new tactic - turning the long-focus lenses on the paparazzi themselves. By Andrew Gumbel

Thus it is that Sunset Protective Services, an outfit run by two retired cops, advertises prominently for something it calls "paparazzi abatement". The company's website features a picture of the car wreck that claimed the life of Diana, Princess of Wales in Paris in 1997, along with the provocative caption: "Don't let this happen to you." The somewhat less than grammatical text continues: "We photograph, follow, document and generally make life miserable to be a paparazzi."

To prove its point, Sunset Protective offers a rogues' gallery of snappers sitting in their cars, pointing their cameras and looking generally unhappy to have someone else's cameras turned on them. One picture on the website shows a photographer apparently being pulled over by the police. Another is captioned: "An independent shutterbug with scrapes and bruises." And indeed the photograph shows a young blonde woman with unspecified injuries to her right forearm.

The implication is clear, and not necessarily all that pleasant - you mess with celebrities, and Sunset Protective Services will mess with you.

There is nothing new, of course, about celebrities and their retinues getting nasty, aggressive and even violent with over-intrusive photographers. Sean Penn, Alec Baldwin and others have shown little restraint in raising their voices or waving their fists when their hackles were up.

What has changed, however, is the undercurrent of violence that is beginning to emerge on both sides of the celebrity-paparazzi divide. Several young actresses, in particular, have complained that photographers have either scared them, or entrapped them, or provoked car accidents in their zeal to capture a candid off-duty photograph. The driver of a minivan who collided with a Mercedes driven by the teen star Lindsay Lohan over the summer was subsequently charged with assault with a deadly weapon. Lohan was involved in another car accident in West Hollywood just last week, although the police subsequently determined that paparazzi had nothing to do with it.

Intriguingly, the unpleasantness appears to have increased on the other side as well. In August, a photographer walking up a street towards a Malibu house where Britney Spears was holding a birthday party was shot in the leg. The injury, inflicted by a plastic pellet, was not serious, but the incident nevertheless alarmed photographers, for two reasons.

First, and most obviously, nobody wants to get shot on the job. And second, the public reaction suggested that all the sympathy in the case was with Britney Spears and her friends, and absolutely none of it with the photographer, who may have been an unwanted presence but was not trespassing or breaking any other law.

When Frank Griffin, the head of one of the oldest celebrity photography agencies in Hollywood, Bauer-Griffin, gave his view in the media that it is never cool to shoot anyone, he received an avalanche of hate mail. It is not clear who fired the shot that hit the photographer Brad Diaz's leg, but it appears to have been one of Spears' neighbours, not one of her guests.

The police have shown little inclination to investigate, and Griffin, among others, surmises that whoever did it calculated - correctly - that they would get away with it. One unconfirmed story in circulation has it that Spears' only regret was that the shooter didn't aim a little higher and a touch further to the left.

An incident that Griffin regards as even more disconcerting took place last Friday, when a freelance videographer was following Tom Cruise near a cluster of buildings belonging to the Church of Scientology on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood. According to Griffin, the videographer was surrounded by four people as he parked his car, threatened with handcuffs and accused of attempted armed robbery. He was taken to a police station and booked on $50,000 bail. The charges were later deemed to be without merit and were dropped, but not before the videographer was out by some $10,000 in bail bond and legal costs.

The Britney Spears incident was the making of Sunset Protective Services, which was apparently present at the party but did not appear to be responsible for the shooting. The company was subsequently hired by Brad Pitt to provide security at the Malibu home he now shares with Angelina Jolie.

It's an open question, though, whether Sunset Protective's grandstanding about going out to get the paparazzi is ultimately good for business. Most security companies thrive on discretion. The ones that throw around "as seen on TV" slogans on their website and make incendiary statements in painfully ill-written English are probably not the ones the paparazzi, or anyone else, need worry about.

"Generally, the ones who make the biggest noise are the least scary. They make themselves the laughing stock of the business by operating that way," Griffin said. "It's the silent ones who are more threatening."

Nobody, not even Griffin, defends the behaviour of every last celebrity photographer. On the contrary; Griffin's analysis is that any professionalism that used to exist in his business has been compromised by the sheer demand for celebrity photographs and the ease of digital photography. "When I started 15 years ago, there were six or eight of us. Now there are 200, of which 150 never trained as photographers," he said. "Not only is it hard to get trained photographers to do this kind of thing, but the technology is now such that 75 per cent of the work can be done by people without any skill."

Thus it was that one less than subtle snapper was recently arrested in Disneyland trying to take pictures of Reese Witherspoon and her family. According to news reports, Todd Wallace attacked park employees, used foul language and generally behaved in a less than gentlemanly manner. Griffin's view is that he got exactly what he deserved.

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