The paparazzi and the addiction to celebrity have interested me for quite a while, so I’m ashamed that it took me until yesterday to get round to watching Teenage Paparazzo (2010 /2011,UK), a documentary made by Hollywood actor Adrian Grenier about Austin Visschedyk, who as readers (and I hope there are a few out there!) will correctly infer, is a young paparazzo.
The documentary was made over a period of about three years, beginning when Visschedyk was thirteen, and showered a hail of flashes at Grenier at a red carpet event one night in Hollywood. We see footage of Grenier running after Visschedyk, not because he’s angry, but rather because he’s intrigued by this pint-sized-pap, who has successfully hustled his way amidst the dozens of other image hungry photographers.
Grenier describes his curiosity to why members of the public are interested in him and other celebrities, pointing out the irony of how he is famous for his performance as a celebrity in HBO’s Entourage series. (There is a very handy graphic illustrating how sometimes it’s like boundaries between the fiction and reality of his life are hard to distinguish. Thanks for that.)
The film documents Visschedyk at work and with his family, particularly his mother who is unusually supportive of him staying out on school nights (which is every night, as he’s home schooled) until 3am, following celebrities and waiting for them outside clubs and restaurants. There is also plenty of content on the subject more generally, featuring interviews with actors, including Matt Damon, Eva Longoria and Paris Hilton, as well as other industry figures and academics.
Whilst this, in itself, is interesting, where this project really excels is in the story it documents, or rather creates. That isn’t a cynical comment about documentary ethics, but rather, during the course of the project, the attention Visschedyk receives from Grenier brings in wider interest, and Visschedyk’s notoriety goes global, beyond his native LA. What we first see as a thoroughly enterprising, energetic and articulate kid begins to turn a little sour, as he himself becomes… a celebrity. A network even wants to shoot a pilot for a reality show about him. He talks less of his ambition to be a photographer and more about being a celebrity. Feeling somewhat responsible for the beast he has created, Grenier realizes the only way to fix him is to show him the documentary thus far, which helps put Visschedyk’s feet back on the ground and certainly opens his mothers eyes a little wider to her son’s exploits and the risks he’s exposed to.
It takes seeing this unfinished film for Visschedyk to grasp a deeper comprehension of the ethical questions and complexities of the negative aspects of what paparazzi actually do. Until that point, when people asked him “what are you doing?” as Visschedyk desperately darts around, shooting as many frames-per-second as his motor drive will allow, (actually it’s usually intoned more like “what are you doing, Austin?”, as in perhaps “why aren’t you at home or hanging out with your buddies?” rather than a philosophical question), Visschedyk replies “I’m just doing my job!”.
As far as I’m aware, “I’m just doing my job” seems to be the answer given by most paparazzi and the more invasive journalists, as well as traffic wardens, for that matter. It says a lot when an early or mid profession pap can’t come up with a better justification than a teenager. Yes, they may be doing a job, but there are plenty of other ways to make a living that don’t routinely involve pissing people off. If there is one thing teenagers are really excellent at doing, it’s pissing people off without really caring, so perhaps they make much better paparazzi?
Now 16 and driving a BMW rather than riding a skateboard, a calmer, wiser Visschedyk comments upon the brat that he saw he was in the documentary. I think that’s a little unfair on himself: who isn’t selfish and egotistical as a teenager? And given that he had (and I’m sure still has) girls literally falling all over him, and was being greeted by Paris Hilton with “hey, Sexy!”, I think we can cut him some slack. But I supposed I should have expected such a happy ending from a film made in Hollywood, by a Hollywood star, and about Hollywood. (Please don’t get any ideas, Mr. Spielberg.)
Despite the relatively brief brat period, it’s difficult to have anything but sheer respect for Visschedyk: Managing to earn the respect of fellow paparazzi and sell his pictures at such a young age is an impressive feat. Whilst he has obviously had some financial help to invest in the necessary equipment for his profession, he’s managed to sustain the business and be successful at it, which, for that matter is no mean feat for any area of photography. As his mother and Whoopi Goldberg point out, he now has to prove himself as a great image-maker, and not just able to rely on his youth and his charm to stand out amidst the competition.
I don’t mean for this post to be a rant about the paparazzi. Although they don’t do themselves any favours by clinging to the secrecy they deny their subjects, or rather their ‘quarry’ (‘subject’ implies connection and collaboration), I think they get enough negative feedback. A capitalist society means that there will always be someone providing a service for which there is a demand, so my beef is with the people who consume this vacuous trash (gossip magazines, reality TV shows etc etc): they are creating the demand and paparazzi help fulfill it. Teenage Paparazzo is a really interesting piece of work, one which I hope may be used to educate young people about the emptiness of celebrity and hopefully will to inspire them to achieve greater things. Be forewarned though – despite it’s ‘Exempt’ classification, the film does contain some colourful language!
See the movie’s website: http://www.teenagepaparazzo.com/
and Teenage Paparazzo on iMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1232206/
buy the dvd on Amazon.co.uk