We are sipping our espressos outside Bar Italia, opposite Ronnie Scott’s. Everything is peaceful, or as peaceful as Soho can be on a Wednesday afternoon. There is a man on the neighbouring table with two long-emptied coffee cups in front of him and an edgy look on his face. He keeps gazing both ways down the street, in anticipation of something he seems to know is about to happen. With one hand, he drums the table impatiently and with the other he is holding something on his lap under the table.
A young woman approaches on the other side of the street, and suddenly: action! The man bounces off his chair, dashes forwards and points at her with a colossal telephoto lens. She jumps, looks around her in disbelief and then, realising her attacker is holding a camera, laughs nervously and hides her face behind her hair. The man stops, puts the lens down and shouts after her: “Sorry – I thought you were someone else… Sorry!” The woman shrugs her shoulders as she walks away, the man returns to his table. “No point, mate,” the Ronnie Scott’s door staff call out to him, “She will be coming in through the back.” The poster outside reads: Tonight on stage – Norah Jones.
In London, scenes such as this are hardly rare, especially in areas like the West End. Our town is a high-yielding territory for photographers who are on the outlook for film stars, sportspeople, musicians, politicians, TV personalities and other celebrities. Photographers who get a decent shot of someone famous can make considerable sums by selling their pictures to the tabloids – how much exactly depends on who is in the picture, the angle it is taken from and what the target is doing.
Offering glimpses from the private lives of famous people to the curious public started in the 1950s Rome, where scandal-sheet photographers were hunting down celebrities and socialites. The practice grew in the 1950s and 1960s, as cameras became more widespread, portable, smaller and cheaper. The term paparazzi was first coined in the 1960 Federico Fellini film La Dolce Vita. The word is a contraction of pappataci (mosquitos) and ragazzi (guys), which for Fellini, conveyed the blood-sucking mentality of these photographers and their tireless buzzing around targets. By the end of 1960s, the word had entered in the English language as a generic term for intrusive lensmen.
If you have ever been mistaken for a famous person (or if you are one), someone might have pulled one of those big lenses on you. Even if you get a ‘sorry’ afterwards because the photographer has misidentified you, the experience is harrowing. Many people hate the idea of being photographed in the street without their consent and might think it is their legal right to be saved from such occurrence. This, however, is not the case; in the eyes of the law anyone can take a picture of his or her surroundings when in a public space. In other words, when you are out there on the street, you are fair game. (Children are an exception, and any ethically-minded photographer would ask for a permission before taking pictures of someone’s children.) The boundary between public and private space is a hazy one though, and what is legal might not always be ethical – take camping on the street outside someone’s home for example, or pressing your lens up against someone’s car window.
In French, the pictures taken without the permission of the subject are aptly called des images volées – stolen images. Of course, people who are unaware of being photographed also feature in some of the best street photographers’ work, but that is as far as the similarities between these two types of photography go. For paparazzi it is crucial who the subject is, while street photographers seek to document authentic moments from ordinary life, capturing people unknown to them as a part of the cityscape.
Street photographers are seldom taking the images with an explicit intention of making money – rather, their motivation is artistic and social observation. Things like composition, timing and aesthetics set the value for these images – not how much tabloids will pay for them. For street photographers, the opportunities for great shots are often ‘stumbled on,’ whereas the situations in which the paparazzi attack their target tend to be carefully planned and premeditated.
The difference between paparazzi and street photographers resembles that between hunters and gatherers: while hunters attack their victim with the intention to kill – in this case, to kill something of the subject’s privacy – gatherers feed on things they find and can make use of, while leaving the source of their nourishment to grow and flourish. Indeed, the value of street photographers’ images – unlike that of most of the paparazzi shots – grows with time: they become even more interesting a couple of decades or half-a century later. Just think of the work by photographers such as André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, or the recently discovered Vivian Meier – a Chicago-based nanny who secretly documented life around her in thousands of rolls of film but never showed her work to anyone. Today, these photographers’ work offers us an authentic exposition of everyday life in the past – its extraordinary beauty and relentlessness, which they have carefully picked up and preserved for the generations to come.