Behind the lens with a paparazzi prowling L.A. for celebrity prey

giles harrison portfolio concerts beyonce joins husband jay z coachellaGiles Harrison is well aware that you probably don’t like him. As a celebrity photographer for almost 20 years and the head of one of the top photo agencies in the country – his clients include People Magazine, Us Weekly, InTouch, USA Today, Time, Rolling Stone, Extra, Access Hollywood, and Entertainment Tonight, to name a few – he knows how his line of work is perceived in the public eye.

“The paparazzi are just the easiest ones to demonize because people think of us all as scrummy human beings. You never hear of the paparazzi doing good; you only hear when we’ve done something bad,” said Harrison, the founder of London Entertainment Group, a large photo agency in Los Angeles that specializes in celebrity photography, as well as breaking news and special events like the red carpet at award ceremonies. “It’s like lawyers – everybody thinks lawyers are a bunch of lying, thieving bastards.”

We know their reputation: camping outside celebrity homes, stalking them as they’re shopping or on vacation, and even getting into shouting matches and fights. Or, at least that’s how they’re often portrayed. Harrison acknowledges that while there are celeb photographers who go too far, it doesn’t paint a full picture of what they do. Whether you like them or not, the paparazzi is providing a service the public wants.

“Are there some photographers that probably drive people to that kind of level of annoyance, I’m sure there is,” Harrison said. “It’s just that perception that gets put out there and it’s perpetuated. But at the end of the day, we’re journalists, regardless of what people think. And we’re providing a product to respectable newspapers, magazines, blogs, TV shows, websites…we’re providing images to those [readers and viewers].

“We’re not scumbags – we’re people who have figured out how to make a living taking photos of people,” Harrison added.

As someone who’s unapologetically vocal about his job, Harrison spoke to us about how he got started in the business, the lengths he has gone to in getting that elusive shot, and the public perception that hangs over his head.

Did you wake up one day and said, “I want to be a celebrity photographer?”

You know, it’s very strange: I had no desire to be a photographer whatsoever. My entire goal in life was to be either in the movie industry or be a journalist. I was about 26, and I was working a temp job at a cable company that I absolutely, positively hated. Then a friend of mine who owned Splash News and Picture suggested that I come work with them for a while shooting video, and be their videographer. I never really shot video in my life, never really considered it, but I figured, you know, it’d be something to tie me over so I can pay the bills until I found another job. But I took to it, and literally it was just one day led to another, and here we are, almost 20 years later and I’m still doing it.

Emma Thompson gets honored with a star in the Hollywood Walk Of Fame in front of the Pig and Whistle Pub in Hollywood, Ca

I didn’t come into this as a trained photographer. I picked it up as I went along, so a lot of it is trial and error. I took photo classes in high school and liked it very much, but I didn’t learn nearly as much until I actually started doing this job on the street.

How do you decide what you’re going to photograph?

I never know what I’m doing from day to day. I’m not the stakeout type of photographer. I’m not going to go park outside Victoria Beckham’s house and sit there all day, hoping she’ll go out and do something. I’m very, very good at spotting people: I have a route that I drive everyday, or certain areas that I target certain times of the day, and I just drive the streets of L.A. looking for famous people all day. My other photographers, they might have specific assignments [where I might say], “Go sit outside Victoria Beckham’s house,” or there might be a red carpet premier. I’ll send photographers to do that, but for my own personal purposes, I hunt for celebs all day long.”

So, let’s say you followed Victoria Beckham all day and got some nice shots. How do you get those photos from camera to the front page?

I’ll go home and edit them. Most people would work the phones themselves [to sell the photos], but I do it a little bit differently – I have an agent who does all that kind of administrative stuff for me. They will set a price for it and sell it, and they get a cut and I get the rest.

When you approach a celeb, what’s their usual reaction?

As long as you’re cordial to them, they’re cordial to you. It runs the gamut. I would say that the vast majority of celebrities aren’t all really friendly with it, but they accept it. And then you get the 20 percent that act like assholes.

The 20 percent would include people like Alec Baldwin?

The Press Room the 59th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium on September 16, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. the 59th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards at the Shrine Auditorium on September 16, 2007 in Los Angeles, CaliforniaHere’s the thing with people like Alec Baldwin: Alec Baldwin is an asshole, and everybody knows he is an asshole with a hot temper. If you remember, a few years ago he was berating his daughter down the telephone. He’s a guy with anger issues. Do I doubt for a second that he said what he said to the photographer? I don’t doubt it at all. I’m sure he did say it because I’ve had stuff of that nature said to me, and worse. And a lot of them think they can say that to you because nobody is going to do anything about it. And you’re certainly not going to do anything about it.

But their argument is that you’re invading their privacy.

It’s touchy. I can understand you don’t want photographers outside your house every single day. But, if you’re in the public eye, a certain amount of it comes with the territory, and how you choose to deal with it is how you choose to deal with it. And I think Alec Baldwin deals with it in an aggressive fashion, but it doesn’t need to be.

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Honestly, it’s situational ethics. Every situation is different, and every situation demands a different set of rules. You do what you need to do to get the shot within the confines of the law. [Celebrities’ children] are off limits in certain situations, as far as I’m concerned. Now, I’m not saying that we don’t blur those lines –sometimes, I probably put my whole body over the line – but it’s situational. Short of killing somebody or stealing, I’ve probably done everything that I could do to get a shot.

Tell us about some of the lengths you’ve gone to in order to get that shot.

I hung out of a helicopter over Brooke Shields and Andre Agassi’s wedding in the ’90s. I doubt I’d do that now, maybe because of the sheer nerves. I mean, I was literally hanging out of the helicopter. I’ve been chased by the Federales (the Mexican Federal Police) across Acapulco Bay, trying to get pictures of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. I got hotel rooms overlooking pools where I knew celebrities were going to be. Pretended to be a guest. I’ve gatecrashed celebrity birthday parties and gotten photos that way. I’ve done a lot of things.

There’s also a “serious” side to your work, isn’t there?

We do general assignments, anything that’s newsworthy. I covered the first Mardi Gras in New Orleans post-Katrina; I went down and visited families in the Lower Ninth Ward who were returning to their homes, trying to get their lives back together. A couple years ago I did a story about the unmanned reaper drones that get flown over Afghanistan. I do proper newspaper stories, as well, but those aren’t as lucrative. Those keep the lights on, but what keeps the roof over your head is the celebs.

The tabloids and paparazzi have a bad rep – it’s not journalism, they say – but the public craves the photos and the news. Yet, there’s a certain stigma that gets put on photographers like you.

I don’t think the public [puts stigma on us]. I think the media creates this stigma that gets attached to it. I think they like to blow it out of proportion and they need somebody to demonize. One of the common insults I get from celebrities is, “get a real job” or “get a life.” I have a real job: I pay taxes, I work hard, and I employ people. It puts food on my table, it puts food on my photographers’ table. Like the National Enquirer: People forget that the National Enquirer’s broken some really groundbreaking, big stories. Everybody thinks it’s a rag that prints lies, but that’s not the case.

Are celebrities truly victimized by the paparazzi?

I could tell you stories about publicists being in bed with photographers, celebrities being in bed with photographers – literally and figuratively – to the point where the celebrities share in the proceeds of the paparazzi photos that get taken of them. There’s a lot of that that goes on.

The 2006 21st Annual American Cinematheque Award presented by Julia Roberts honouring George Clooney at The Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, CA.

We’re not bad people. I think every industry needs somebody to vilify and hold as the antithesis of what something should be. Celebrities are America’s and the world’s royalty, and there always has to be an enemy in that. But it is a very symbiotic relationship: they need us as much as we need them. And some celebrities understand that, because I can assure you, if a celebrity walks the red carpet and every single photographer puts their camera down and didn’t take a picture of them – as people did with George Clooney in the wake of Princess Diana – celebrities would have a problem with that. And what celebrities should worry about is when people don’t want their picture anymore.

Is it a tough profession to break into today?

It’s not a difficult industry to break into anymore because there’s a lot more people doing it now, and the advent of digital cameras has made the ability to take a photograph a lot easier. It would have been a lot harder back then because, for a lack of a better phrase, you actually had to know what you were doing. You didn’t know whether you got the shot until you got your negatives into a darkroom and loaded into a scanner and looked at them. You didn’t have the luxury of the instant gratification, of knowing whether you got the shot or not. So, I’d say it’s a lot easier now than it was before.

So, digital has created more competition for you?

There’s considerably more competition. When digital cameras first came out, it was still a niche industry because they were like five, six thousand dollars. They weren’t selling digital compacts that were any good, so the compact cameras were still film cameras. But that’s not the case anymore. Now, you’re competing with everybody: professionals, amateurs, hobbyists, the guy down the street who just decides to use his smartphone and take a photo. I can’t tell you the amount of concerts I go to and I see people standing there with iPads and iPhones taking photos and videos. We certainly are competing against on a global scale now more so than we ever were before. It was kind of isolated before, and now it’s not. And digital cameras kind of killed it.

Tell us about the setup you use for your assignments.

I have a Nikon D700 and several lenses. I have an 80-200mm lens for when I’m doing red carpet stuff, things like that. I have an 80-400mm pretty much for everything else, and I have a 300-800mm plus a doubler for the long-range stuff. I have a Canon G12 for when I want to be a little bit more covert or if I’m shooting a concert, especially if I’m not credentialed for said concert.

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When I used film, I pretty much always had it set at ISO 800 and I had my camera overexposed by a third of a stop. And that pretty much, I found, covered every situation. [With digital], I usually have it set on shutter priority, about 250, 300, 500 ISO. The only thing I ever tend to play with is the ISO. With digital cameras you can do a lot more, but you don’t have to play around with it too much. To be perfectly honest, I’m sure my D700 does things I can’t even dream of.

For someone looking to get into the profession, where should they start?

Learn how to take a photograph and take a journalism course. Because this stuff is very news based, news photographers do very well because they understand inherently what you need to tell a story. I have sports photographers that cannot shoot paparazzi stuff to save their lives. If you’re just going out to shoot pictures, you’ll never make money. But if you’re shooting the story, and using the pictures to tell those stories, that’s the key.

What are some memorable moments in your career?

My big desire was to photograph a member of the royal family. Recently I got some photographs of Prince Harry hanging out in Venice Beach, California about 30 minutes after the story broke on TMZ about him being naked in the hotel room in Vegas; I got those exclusively. That was one of the most thrilling days of my career because it wasn’t even like I staked him out. It was complete fluke, and I wasn’t even working that day. Royal family members, those are hard to get, even by people who shoot them all the time. But I’m not one of those people that dwell [about the photos I took]; they’re just assignments at the end of the day, they all blur into one.

So, with all this new competition from the Average Joe, is it still thrilling?

Giles Harrison is widely recognized as one of the leading celebrity photographers in the worldIt’s kind of getting old. I’m kind of over it now. I’d much rather get to a point where my photographers were making me the money and I don’t have to do it myself. But, I still do get a kick out of it. I don’t get the rush of seeing my pictures in magazines like I did before – I could care less. I don’t put my personal byline on stuff, I put my company byline because I don’t care about the adulation for it – seeing my name in print doesn’t do anything for me. But it is still fun. I wouldn’t say I get a thrill out of it, but there’s aspects of it that are still fun. As long as it’s still fun, I’ll keep doing it. And it’s lucrative, it’s what I do, I have no other source of income. It’s my job, my career. 

(All images copyright: Giles Harrison, London Entertainment Group.)

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