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Complicated dynamics between celebrities and the paparazzi contributed to the confusion around a recent incident in New York City.
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By Jacob Bernstein
“It’s a messed-up business,” said Roger Wong, a freelance photographer, who on Thursday evening was among a few dozen others waiting on a red carpet outside the Hard Rock Hotel, near Times Square. He was hoping to get a sellable shot of Martha Stewart, one of this year’s cover models for Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue. “But what am I going to do? Start flipping burgers? I’d probably make more money, but it’s not my thing.”
At the issue’s launch party, the photographers chatted and took pictures of other attendees who also included Megan Fox and Kim Petras. But they were still reeling from the event that took place two nights before, at the Ziegfeld Ballroom, where Meghan Markle was being honored at the annual Ms. Foundation Women of Vision Awards.
Upon leaving the gala, Prince Harry, Meghan and her mother, Doria Ragland, were involved in what a representative for the couple described as a “near catastrophic car chase” as a result of a frenzied pursuit by paparazzi.
After word of the ordeal ricocheted around the world from a city not especially known for the kind of operatic paparazzi chases that are commonplace in Los Angeles and Europe, several of the photographers were of the strong opinion that the chase had been manufactured or overhyped. Of the nearly dozen The New York Times spoke to, a few said they were at the event. One said he chased the royal couple, but would give details only for money.
The first reports largely repeated the claims made by the couple’s representative, as well as comments made by a member of the security detail to CNN that the chase could have been fatal. But as more details emerged, from the accounts of the police and a taxi driver who was briefly involved, the facts began to diverge from their account.
In a text message, Tina Brown, the author of two books on the royals, said the whole story “sounds mildly preposterous.”
But that came after claims from the royals’ representative that they had been involved in a dramatic chase that lasted for two hours. Mayor Eric Adams condemned what had occurred as “reckless and irresponsible,” only to add that he was slightly flummoxed by the idea of a two-hour high-speed car chase in Midtown Manhattan.
And indeed, the police subsequently concluded that the incident warranted “no further investigation.”
Mr. Wong noted that earlier on Tuesday, a lawyer for Prince Harry had appeared in court in London, challenging a government decision not to allow him to pay for police protection during visits home. The timing, Mr. Wong said, was awfully convenient.
Even a person who had previously worked with the royals on their public relations strategy said it strained logic that the couple’s driver had not simply pulled into a garage at one of the many hotels celebrities frequently use to ward off pursuing photographers. The couple’s decision to stay with a friend at an undisclosed location rather than at a secure hotel was ridiculed in Page Six.
In an interview with The Times on Friday, the representative for the couple, Ashley Hansen, said: “Respectfully, considering the duke’s family history, one would have to think nothing of the couple or anybody associated with them to believe this was any sort of P.R. stunt. Quite frankly, I think that’s abhorrent.”
But for the rotating cast of characters who make their livings photographing the comings and goings of celebrities, the story from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex was in some way bound to be treated with suspicion.
One reason for that, said Steve Eichner, 58, an event photographer who has worked for Vogue, WWD and Variety, is that the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997 in Paris while being pursued by photographers calcified public stereotypes about people in the profession.
“After she died, I remember being on the red carpet at events and people would drive up, roll down their windows and scream: ‘You’re murderers! You’re killers!” Mr. Eichner said. “I’ve never chased a celebrity in my life.”
According to Steve Sands, another photographer who has spent the better part of his adult life photographing celebrities, it was also a story in which the entire blame for the tragedy was laid at the photographers’ feet, with few seeming to note that the paparazzi were led on the chase by “a drunk driver” who was escorting Diana and was “determined to be a hero.” (A police inquest determined that the driver’s blood-alcohol concentration was about three times the legal limit.)
In addition, the punishing economics of the tabloid business along with the aggressive expansion of Getty Images, a leading supplier of celebrity pictures, have made it difficult to earn a living, several said in interviews on Thursday. Operating independently, they either can’t make a sale or have to hound publications for payments; agreeing to sell through Getty earns them royalties of only a few dollars on a small website.
Getting shots of celebrities in “real life” situations tends to be more lucrative, but the days of $100,000 jackpots are largely over, several said.
One person who has excelled despite these odds is Kevin Mazur, an event photographer who co-founded the company WireImage. In 2007, WireImage was sold to Getty as part of what was described at the time as a $200 million deal. But Mr. Mazur continues to shoot constantly, including on Tuesday, when he was the sole photographer with full access at the Ms. Foundation gala.
That enabled him to get the only clean shots of Prince Harry and Meghan inside the venue while providing the other shutterbugs with much to complain about as they cast the event as a parable for how monopolies overfeed those at the top and starve everyone else at the bottom. At the same time, the cries of victimhood by paparazzi are less likely to elicit sympathy than the ones made by a man whose mother died in a car crash fleeing from them.
Moreover, claims by photographers that no one outside got shots of the couple leaving the event turned out to be false. “They were some of the most beautiful images of the evening,” Ms. Hansen said, who minutes later produced a few of them by text message.
At the start of the Tuesday night’s gala, Mr. Wong, 62, was one of the photographers shooting in front, where event organizers had announced that Meghan would be appearing. There was no indication she would be accompanied by her husband.
Although there were dozens of other names in attendance, Meghan was the only one, in Mr. Wong’s estimation, whose picture would have enabled him to get more than a hundred dollars.
A barricade was set up and photographers believed that although only Mr. Mazur would have inside access, they would still have an opportunity to photograph her outside.
The first surprise was spotting the prince. The second was instead of posing for the photographers out front, Meghan and Harry darted into the Hertz car rental nearby and used another entrance to sidestep the photographers.
“All these people went around and photographed them through the glass,” said Mr. Wong, who couldn’t get close enough to obtain a good shot.
So he went home empty-handed. As did a select group of wire service photographers for outlets like The Associated Press, who had a place upstairs to stand but never got a shot inside.
Michael Stewart, another New York freelance photographer, opted to follow the couple as they left.
Although Mr. Stewart declined to be interviewed for this article, he has told people over the past few days that there were six cars involved — three belonging to Meghan and Harry, and three belonging to photographers who were in pursuit. There were also around half a dozen trailing on bicycles.
Mr. Stewart’s electric bike enabled him to keep up for about half an hour as the detail escorted Meghan, her mother and Prince Harry on a circuitous route that involved heading uptown, turning back downtown, then heading all the way east to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, and from there to a police precinct. When they exited, a security guard working for them hailed a yellow taxi.
On Thursday, a video of them inside the cab was published on TMZ, and Prince Harry could be seen in the rear passenger seat, holding up his iPhone, shielding his face, seemingly filming them. (In the interview, Ms. Hansen confirmed as much, adding, “I believe that that kind of footage may turn out to be useful should there be an investigation.”)
The taxi driver, Sukhcharn Singh, later told The Washington Post that the couple seemed nervous as he began driving them away.
He acknowledged that the paparazzi appeared to be following but said: “I don’t think I would call it a chase. I never felt like I was in danger. It wasn’t like a car chase in a movie. They were quiet and seemed scared but it’s New York — it’s safe.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Singh said that the security guard riding in the front seat quickly grew concerned and asked to be taken back to the police station. There was not even time for the couple to give him the address to which they were headed. Sometime thereafter, the couple got home by police convoy without having their location discovered.
Initially, it wasn’t just the mayor who criticized the photographers. The New York Press Photographers Association put out a blistering statement about the paparazzi’s “alleged” conduct, saying it “runs counter to the code of ethics to which all of our members — and any press photographer with respect for themselves and the profession — are expected to adhere.”
Backgrid, an agency that represents at least two of the photographers who drove cars in pursuit of the royal couple, countered in a statement, saying that although the agency would be investigating the incident, its photographers reported the couple was in no immediate danger during that time. That led the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to issue another statement demanding the agency hand over the footage. The agency quickly responded with a letter to the couple’s legal team that read: “In America, as I’m sure you know, property belongs to the owner of it: Third parties cannot just demand it be given to them, as perhaps kings can do. Perhaps you should sit down with your client and advise them that his English rules of royal prerogative to demand that the citizenry hand over their property to the crown were rejected by this country long ago. We stand by our founding fathers.”
One of the Backgrid photographers involved in the incident was Marvin Patterson, a freelancer known as Blayze. His Facebook page contains numerous pictures of him photo-bombing models, rap queens and reality divas around town. He was contacted by The Times late Thursday evening by text message. Mr. Patterson said he would soon be releasing a statement but would consider revealing more were an “aggressive offer” to come his way.
After being told that The Times does not permit paying sources and subjects, Mr. Patterson said the footage on TMZ pretty much summed up how tame the whole thing actually was. “There is nothing for the public or the police to actually be concerned about,” he said. “The facts are out there. Exactly what you see is what is there.”
Then he hung up, only to explain in a subsequent text message that there was simply no incentive to speak.
“Yes,” he said. “There was silence because there was no offer of money for my story.”
A correction was made on
May 20, 2023
An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect year for the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. It was 1997, not 1998.
How we handle corrections
Jacob Bernstein is a reporter for the Styles desk. In addition to writing profiles of fashion designers, artists and celebrities, he has focused much of his attention on L.G.B.T. issues, philanthropy and the world of furniture design. @bernsteinjacob
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