After about three hours of waiting next to a parking lot in the 85+ degree LA heat behind the El Capitan theater on Hollywood Boulevard, I finally caught a glimpse of Cara Delevingne.
Walking at a fast pace, her barely 5'9" frame was covered by flowing blonde hair, oversized glasses and three bodyguards all shielding her from the exact reason I was there: to get a picture of her.
Not with her. Of her. There is a distinct difference there. I wasn't a fan looking to meet someone I'd idolized on screen or in magazines. I wasn't looking for an autograph or to go back to my small town in the midwest to talk about the time I met a Hollywood star. In fact, my presence in the picture would have devalued its worth to me.
I wanted a picture of her so I could upload it online and maybe make a few bucks.
I couldn't be more emotionally removed from the experience if I tried.
A few days before this, I would have been fangirling over seeing Cara IRL, but now this was only a job to me. A super annoying job that led to me being covered in sweat and angry at the three guards doing their job, surrounding her for protection while simultaneously blocking my shot.
She BOLTED the second she got out of the backstage doors to her car. Almost like a flock of spooked pigeons, my competition, in unison, bolted with her to the back of the parking lot where she was going to come out of.
We knew where her car was going to pull out because there was only one exit.
After taking a few terrible pictures obscured by a piece of ripped up cloth draped over a fence, I heard someone yell my name. I turned around and the two fellow camera guys I had been on the stakeout with are in a souped-up Toyota ready to chase down Cara and her car to get a picture.
I jump in, and with the door still open, we speed off to chase down her Chevy.
For 10 minutes we followed her SUV as her driver tried to lose us. He swerved into on-coming traffic, hopped curbs, stopped short and, at one point, almost killed a motorcyclist while abruptly merging into another lane.
I asked the driver of my car one of 30 obvious questions racing through my mind at the time,
How do they not call the cops on you?
Smoothly he responded,
If it gets too dangerous or I feel unsafe, I'll let them go.
Eventually, Delevingne's chauffeur, who we were told could have maybe been ex-military, realized he wasn't going to shake us. He slowed down and drove normally as we approached her hotel, the Chateau Marmont.
With the car still running, we busted out of the door and ran to the entrance of the hotel. Her SUV backed up all the way to the door about 15 yards from where we were able to walk up to. She took 1.5 steps and was away from our view, in the safety of the Chateau lobby.
After three hours of waiting, a high-speed chase through LA and nearly killing some unassuming motorcyclist, I saw Cara in person for a total of 28-ish seconds.
If you haven't figured it out by now, for one week in July, I became a member of the paparazzi, that aggressive group of photographers society has labeled boundary-crossing sleazeballs, picking fights with Justin Bieber and killing Princess Diana.
Society is wrong, though. I can now firmly report the paparazzi aren't terrible. They're pretty dang creepy, and I for sure witnessed/took part in some things I'm still emotionally navigating weeks later, but they aren't terrible.
What I found was the paparazzi are no different than every other American who has a 9-5 job. Yes, most 9-5's don't involve a worker's emotional state shifting back and forth from feeling tremendously creepy to assuming they're about to die, but at the end of the day it was oddly “office-y.”
The line the paparazzi cross that you've probably drawn in your head to justify your opinion on the paparazzi is blurry at best.
Most of the time, those pictures you see online and in magazines are taken pretty legitimately. A celeb walks down the street or into a club, poses for a few pictures in the process and goes about their day. Sometimes, with a few nameless C-list celebrities hoping to create some buzz, they'll actually text the paparazzi before they show up to a place in the hopes of being hounded by a swarm of photographers.
There is even one group of absurdly famous celebrities who I won't name who, at a certain point, were taking a cut of the pictures' revenue for themselves. They'd literally tell the paparazzi where they were going to be, get their pictures taken and then have a check cut in their name based on how the pictures sold. (They, of course, would then turn around and do nothing but bad-mouth the paparazzi to the media, which kind of highlights the effed up symbiotic relationship celebs and paparazzi share.)
I am even a strong believer in PR teams/managers/agents using the paparazzi to build narratives behind their clients. Case and point: Tom Hiddleston and Taylor Swift's fake AF relationship.
Those pictures are all fine.
The blurry line paparazzi may or may not cross comes from pictures not taken this way. For instance, is it wrong to stalk a celebrity's house?
Are five grown men sitting outside of Ariel Winter's house at 7:15 am, waiting for her to come out so we can follow her car to Starbucks crossing a line? What about that same group of dudes sitting outside the street that Vanessa Hudgens, Elle Fanning and Dakota Fanning live on?
I did both of those things and I still have no idea how I feel about myself. It's all legal, but it feels SUPER wrong.
It's oddly poetic that there are such high-stakes moral questions you need to ask yourself if you work in the industry because of how high the risk-reward factor is of doing this full time.
You aren't making a ton of money if you do this and it's a lot of waiting around on mysterious tips that often don't come to fruition. Paparazzi do the daily grind with the hopes of catching a picture or video of some breaking story.
You hear different paparazzi talking about the last picture of Michael Jackson alive -- a picture that went for millions -- like it was their version of the Hope diamond. I met the couple who took that famous picture of Calvin Harris leaving a massage parlor that netted them a few grand. The guy I was shadowing with while on this trip's claim to pap-fame was that he made a solid amount of money capturing the last picture of Michael Clark Duncan.
Those pictures only come around every so often, though. For the most part, the paparazzi fight over pics that barely net more than $20 in the long run. The first picture I took of a celebrity during my time there was of Ozzy Osbourne going to physical therapy and I was joined by eight other photographers.
The third person I shot was a lady named Cat Deeley, a celebrity who I still have never heard of aside from the time I saw 15 photographers chase her through LA.
The next group of people I photographed with 10 other paparazzi outside of a swanky restaurant owned by George Clooney were Angie Harmon, Rob Reiner, Matt Dillon, David Spade and some lady who went by the name Frenchie.
All of these people have one thing in common: For the life of me, I can't figure out what the value is in having a picture of them.
There are some cool names on that list, but there is no way any of them equal any sort of minor payday.
What I'm trying to get at is it's a weird job. It's a job with a workforce dominated by dudes -- I maybe saw three women paparazzi during my time in LA -- who catcall like construction workers without the muscle mass. It's a job with a three-year average turnover rate that requires the patience of a monk and the moral flexibility of a Vegas party promoter.
But at the end of the day, it's just that, a job.