Whitney Houston: It's also photojournalism
Paul Harris is the head of Pacific Coast News, one of the largest paparazzi agencies on the West Coast. Two of his photographers, Ben Dome and Dave Tonnessen, took pictures of Whitney Houston a few hours before her death. When their publication caused a scandal, Paul Harris issued this response:
Unless you live under a rock you have all seen the photos, a crazed Whitney Houston leaving a Hollywood night club, clearly impaired, two days later she drowned in a bathtub in a Beverly Hills hotel room a day before the greatest annual music awards show, The Grammys.
The paparazzi strike again, who else would take such pictures, be so invasive, do they have no respect !!!
The answer, as always is complicated and its a good example of Celebrity and Photojournalism today and how those two pursuits clash, on one hand how do you, as a photographer, pursue your passion and make money in todays harsh reality of what financially drives our industry, celebrities.
Not to mention the "Fourth Estate" but more of that later.
Celebrities in many cases want pictures of themselves looking good and doing good things, this makes them feel good and gives them greater market value, enhancing their value to clothes manufacturers, product advertising and what they get paid modeling, acting or pursuing a political or business career.
Alas we are all only human,we all have to battle the temptations of life, the moral and ethical questions we face everyday but when you are a celebrity you also attract enablers and hangers on who provide illegal substances, get you into bad situations easily and when you are a closely followed celebrity the tables can turn from good publicity to a personal and public relations disaster, who better to blame than those scumbag photographers, hounding your every move.
But ask yourself this, if it was not for the prying inquisitive media who would keep these people honest ? Ordinary people have to pay to get into clubs, abide by laws and pay fines when caught, Celebrities and Fat Cats can often bribe , promise favors or talk their way out of situations just because of who they are, we need the media to keep a level playing field for us all.
Ben Dome is a London based freelance photographer who likes to spend the early cold months of a year on the West Coast of America, he syndicates his pictures through Pacific Coast News London and Pacific Coast News Los Angeles. He does Serious photojournalism on the homeless, treks to Africa and Israel, but he also knows, few people these days pay money for any pictures other than celebrity photography, thats the hard part of being a dedicated photojournalist, to survive sometimes you have to sell your soul.
Hence 3 months in America when its cold in Europe, his focus is celebrities. The money made during these trips helping to fund his other photographic adventures.
Lots of people are driven to celebrity photography, most think its easy, just be there and get a picture and you will make money, sadly that is not the case. There are thousands of mediocre and ordinary people out there with cameras,thinking they are photographers, photographing and complaining about not making money, submitting pictures to various publications and photo agencies and waiting for great payments that do not come, why ?
The photos are not good or the subject matter not interesting, to be a great "pap" you need all the skills a great photographer has, knowledge of your camera, how its functions, ISO speeds, all the skills a great sports or news photographer must also have just to be a good competitive photographer, hoping to be great.
What also makes a great photographer ? The ability to capture the moment, almost a sixth sense of anticipation and no matter what the problems, always come away with THE PICTURE.
Thursday February 9, 2012, Ben Dome's own words, " I had been working all day, and all night. Got Russell Brand leaving a comedy club, dull. Got George Clooney and his girlfriend leaving a restaurant together and was on my way home when I got a call that told me Whitney Houston was at Tru nightclub. Sadly Whitney was no longer a huge name in the celebrity and pap industry despite her years of performing and displaying amazing talent. Perhaps her age, perhaps the time spent tackling her demons, perhaps just changing times... but it made me think, maybe its an opportunity, she is not someone most photographers or paparazzi would run to. For me that was a good reason to work it. There wouldn't be lots of people and I stood a chance of getting some good shots which in their rarity might make for a good night's work. The decision was also helped by the fact, it was close to my apartment, so off I went!
On arrival I could see that it was an event of sorts, possibly red carpet, maybe a photographer inside the venue? and a couple of photographers, videographers, autograph collectors and fans gathered outside the venue. I also assessed the crowd and what looked to be Whitney's car and driver/security, waiting at the back door. It looked like I had a while to wait before the party was over. Perhaps one of the most important things in this industry is the ability to see the future, not through a glass ball, but assess the situation and get a sixth sense of how things might well pan out. This helps you choose the right spot and also helps you develop a plan b should you need it.
Might I add at this point, that with years of experience in both celebrity photojournalism (as it should be called when skill is involved) and news, war and documentary photojournalism, the ability to assess comes so quickly its just second nature. It makes the process smooth and with as little fuss and mess as possible. Something that the less experienced 'paps' don't understand which is often what gives the 'paparazzi' such a bad name.
So, with that in mind, I'll continue...
I assessed and decided that I had time before Whitney came out. I sat out of the way, watching the nightclub from my car, editing my nights work from before and waiting for the right time to get ready and in position.
About an hour or so later I noticed things started to move around the club. A few people exiting and fans moving around, this was enough for me to know it was time to get ready. (I probably had about 30 mins to go).
To cut a long story short, I went and took position by the back door of the club, where her car was waiting, her security said don't block the car door and there wont be an issue getting photos. I again assessed how the door would open, where Whitney might walk, where the fans were, where security might stand and ultimately where I would get the best chance for my full length shots to maximize my income. I chose my spot and chatted Whitney's security for a few moments to let him know I would do as he asked, not get in his way and that I'm a good guy. This helps!
I noticed another pap on the other side of the car, Dave Tonnessen, one of Pacific Coast News' LA night photographers. We said hi and let the night unfold.
Then Whitney came out. Fans going wild, videographers shouting questions, security pushing people back and photographers flashing away. With all this going on, the aim for me was to keep relaxed and calm. I took my time to frame the shots and not aimlessly snap away in hope, having taken the time prior to this to make sure my camera and flash settings were correct and focus was right. Working my way around the security and other people around me, finding holes of opportunity to get my shots. Even with all this going one, I could see that Whitney was the worse for wear. I had to get as many photos as I could to show her erratic behavior and document the situation. After all, thats what a photojournalist does, and lets face it, this was definitely a PR event. Whitney signed autographs, swore at someone, said hi to fans, shouted at people, stomped her feet in anger, smiled at the crowd, threw a tantrum, waved goodbye and blew kisses and got into her car. All of this in probably under a minute, maybe even 30 seconds.
After Whitney had been driven away, I stopped to speak to Dave Tonnessen. We and the others around all commented on how bad Whitney's state was. We had a story! Albeit sad, but our pictures definitely showed the situation. It was real. it was a moment in her life. She knew we were there and let us document it.
Dave and I decided that without seeing each others photos, maybe we should work together on it. We had different angles and it would give a fuller image of the events of the night. Dave sent his images in and I sent mine in, we instructed Pacific Coast News editors for both sets to be sold together. It would give more integrity to the story and mean we weren't competing within our own agency. And it payed off. Our story was used only hours after it had happened. it was clear that we had the shots that counted.
The rest is history, the next day many of the blogs and web sites ran the pictures, just another day in the life of Whitney Houston, once a gospel singer, great performer with a life of success ahead of her only to go off the rails for a variety of reasons, endless rounds of rehab and recovery only to be dashed by another relapse, all followed by the media, who had seen it all before, they knew where the story was most likely going,it usually had a tragic ending.
Then that tragic ending happened, about 2 PM Saturday February 12, , "Whitney Houston found dead in her hotel room" were the headlines news, then the craziness really began !!!!
The Fourth Estate !
A few thoughts about the circle of life and the Fourth Estate, you are born innocent, you live your life's experiences and die, as Madonna sang, "We all Live In A Material World", some closer to it than others. That material World covers everything we need to live our lives, some in poverty and horror, others in a fantasy as movie stars and it would seem we all dream but most people dreams are smashed. Life is what happens whilst we wait for those dreams to materialize , some of life's experiences written into magazines, books and movies, "Its a Material World" and we all seem to be bit players, some with bigger bits than others but in the end, like Steve Jobs or Whitney Houston, we all die.
Journalism and the media are known as the Fourth Estate, from brave photojournalist's covering war and pestilence to celebrity photographers chronicling the lives of the rich and famous, they are all doing a service to the people, by keeping the people informed with the truth, sometimes beautiful other times ugly but hopefully forever without censorship, prejudice or political agenda.