From the featured section of Instagram’s Explore tab, they oozed a kind of sun-dappled cool obtainable only above a certain income threshold in the state of California. It was clear who the people in the photos were. What wasn’t obvious — largely due to the surreality of social media and innate suspicion of so-called “candids” in an era of Facetune and filters — was whether they knew they were being photographed. Here, captured in broad daylight, were two famous co-stars kissing in a car.
“There was this whole conspiracy theory that Zendaya and Tom Holland called paparazzi when they were seen kissing,” photographer Miles Diggs, who snapped the viral shots of the Spiderman actors and is often referred to by celebrities and publicists alike as “ ‘Diggzy,” tells Rolling Stone. “This wasn’t the case at all. They just happened to pull up at a red light next to me.”
If a picture is worth a thousand words, Diggs’ output could rival that of Proust. He’s been on the Hollywood scene for years. The car episode was something of an anomaly for him — usually, his photographs are the product of close relationships with A-listers, among them Rihanna, Hailey Bieber and Cardi B. The bicoastal paparazzo’s trademark has become a snap best perhaps described as a mediated candid: it’s not photos fit for a high-fashion editorial, nor is it furtive shots of Gisele Bündchen possibly sneaking into a plastic surgery clinic in a burka; it’s street-style photography, but planned beforehand, and only for those with can afford to be meticulously styled — those who only ever hit the street to be seen.
“There are tons of people that I’ve built relationships with over the years and if they’re up to something or feeling extra fly that day, I’ll swing by,” says Diggs, who is contracted to photo syndication platform Shutterstock. “Having that kind of trust with people is very important to me.”
Hollywood’s paparazzi business used to look quite different. In the early 2000s, you’d hear frequently about clashes between paps and celebs, from stunts gone wrong to outright violence, and the often-embarrassing photos that landed in “Stars, They’re Just Like Us!” tabloid pages were the result of professional stalking. But social media has turned the pap-celeb relationship from one of contention to collaboration. Now, celebrities control their own narratives — they readily offer bikini bodies and makeup-free selfies from their own cameras, which are devoured by fans despite the digital nip-tucks — and call photographers like Diggs to stop by at their own whims. This, in turn, has stripped tabloids and classic pap shots of their “gotcha” power, says senior major label publicist Jennifer Taylor. “Paparazzi were able to capture moments that would have otherwise never been seen by the regular public, giving everyone access to some kind of voyeuristic pleasure,” she says.
“Social media overhauled the celeb photography game,” says Caleb Church, a crisis publicist for high-profile entertainers. “Prior to Instagram, your weekly magazines were reliant on paparazzi to provide images for them to print, and fans were reliant on magazines to see celebrities. Now, celebs can just post on Instagram in real time and the media will pick it up later that day.”
Kenneth Wert, a producer at Getty Images who worked as a photo editor for OK! and US Weekly at the height of the media’s celebrity monopoly, remembers forking out tens of thousands of dollars for an exclusive set of Kardashian photographs, or $2 million for snaps of a celebrity wedding. Often, he says, these images would incite a bidding war. But while the merging of many magazines means the price for pictures has plummeted, Wert believes that as long as celebrity gossip retains its value, so too will street photography. “Social media only goes so far — and the savviest celebrities know this,” says Wert, adding that celebrities will willingly show off a baby bump or flash their engagement ring to photographers when they want to reach a bigger audience. “They want to control their story, but they also want to make sure that the public is interested in any news they have or are generating outside their social channels, because not everyone is on every social media platform. There are those stars that understand the power of the press.”
Church agrees: “There’s one thing that talent and publicists don’t have: an editor of a magazine, with a pre-drafted story, just waiting for the image to pop up in their inbox to go live with the story immediately.”
“A publicist can call and say ‘I have Client Jane Doe dining at Hot Spot and she will be with John Doe and she is wearing Designer X. They will exit the restaurant together around this time. Can you help?’ “
To orchestrate a celebrity “candid,” relationships to a plethora of players must be established — starting with a plugged-in publicist. The first step, says Church, is ensuring your client is in hair and makeup. Next, you optimize their schedule for picture-taking opportunities. Finally, their itinerary must be shared with one or two trusted photographers. (Miles Diggs, coincidentally, is one of Church’s clients’ preferred on-call shutterbugs.)
“If the image was bad, it wasn’t planned,” says Church. “If the image was good, the talent and their team either knew a photographer was going to be there or called them directly. Through this relationship, street style photographers now receive exclusive insights as to where and when talent is going to be.”
“A publicist can literally call and say, ‘Hey there, I have Client Jane Doe dining at Hot Spot and she will be with John Doe and she is wearing Designer X. They will exit the restaurant together around this time. Can you help?’ “ says Sue Taylor, a long-time talent publicist and major label rep. “Then the publicist will tell the client, ‘Look for the photographer in the plaid shirt to the left of the exit.’ ”
Diggs personally prefers to keep his publicist circle small. He’s built his reputation on connections to the stars themselves, and finds that dealing with press reps can mean a lot of “red tape.” While he does get talent tips, his iconic images are frequently the product of research and strategy — and sometimes, like with Tom Holland and Zendaya, also luck. While many photographers will make daily rounds at known celebrity haunts, Diggs works with purpose.
Finding and documenting the new “Bennifer,” he explains, is fundamental to a paparazzo’s survival. “I try to read every article on the top sites and see every paparazzi photo taken around the world each day — even when I’m not working, I’m working,” he says. “Half of the time, they just cross my path in town; last week a celebrity stole my parking spot while I was on my off time. There is a lot of hard work and plenty of luck that goes into capturing photos that tell a story but are also still flattering images, which is always my goal.”
Still, Taylor notes that there’s a degree of playing ball with celebrities’ teams, to maintain one’s access. “Oftentimes paparazzi will allow for approval on images before releasing them in order to gain trust and access long-term,” she says.
Removing an unbecoming photograph from the Internet can be as arduous a process as securing it to begin with. Church says he knows of professional teams working the Google algorithm to “bury” one image and push forth another, circulating preferred pictures to fan pages and using specific hashtags. Alternatively, adds Taylor, you can claim copyright infringement, try to trade, or simply “call editors and beg.”
Much of the business, says Wert, comes down to “just asking nicely.” Trust between all parties is paramount. And good behavior is rewarded. For example, photographers have learned to respect boundaries when it comes to children, or unpolished appearances. In return, celebrities deliver paparazzi the “sunshine factor” — eye contact or a smile — which wins over editors. “Quality street photographers understand the value of the energetic photo,” Wert says. “They want to see images of stylish stars in a natural element, outside of a red carpet step and repeat, smiling with the wind blowing in their hair… Dour images of celebrities in sunglasses will never have a long shelf life.”
Diggs believes the hyper-critical nature of social media has also forced celebrities to want the best “candid” result. “There’s way less resistance,” he says. “Not only do celebrities have their image to keep up, they have social media trolls who will over-exaggerate when a candid photo is taken. This dynamic has created an environment where it is just easier for everyone to work together.”
Wert notes that the #FreeBritney movement also contributed to a shift: Revisiting Britney Spears’ 2000s media treatment through a 2021 lens has thrown the plight of the reluctant celebrity in sharp relief, and when the same tabloids that thrived on Spears’ tumultuous personal life publicly declared support for the singer this year, the public raged. “There is a more socially conscious effort to show respect to talent — something that didn’t always exist a decade ago,” Wert says. “A celebrity can also go straight to their social media to call out unflattering press or photos. No publication [or photographer] wants to risk a relationship with talent or their publicists.”
Yet sometimes, if a lot of money is involved, the celeb-photog relationship does revert to something more antagonistic. Last month, Dua Lipa was sued for posting a paparazzi snap to Instagram without accreditation or approval. Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber settled complaints from a photographer in 2019, and Gigi Hadid, Liam Hemsworth and Khloe Kardashian have also landed in hot water for sharing photographs of themselves without authorization. In an essay for The Cut, Emily Ratajkowski unraveled the claims brought against her for posting a paparazzi shot of herself. “I’ve become more familiar with seeing myself through the paparazzi’s lenses than I am with looking at myself in the mirror,” she wrote.
Diggs believes the pandemic has reaffirmed the symbiosis of the paparazzi-celebrity connection. The great celebrity hibernation of 2020, mandated by global stay-at-home orders, heightened public thirst for content unvarnished by stars’ own photo doctoring. While any star can share their own fit pic or announce a relationship, “a candid moment captured for a headline story will have a way bigger impact,” he says. “The market has truly come out of the pandemic stronger than one would expect,” says Diggs. “A lot of things aren’t permanent, but the public’s love of celebrity gossip is certainly something that isn’t going away anytime soon. If anything, it has increased.”
If the image economy is the most fundamental facet of maintaining fame, street photographers remain the not-so-secret weapon for industry advancement. Very few fly under the radar at Cannes or stroll for hours through Soho without a plan these days, because there’s not really a reason to do so anymore. No celebrity is truly seen without first choosing to be visible — and they need to be visible to remain seen. For fledgling artists or actors, their best bet is to just don a tastefully on-trend look, kiss their new beau, and hope like hell Miles Diggs is close by with a camera.
“You want to be a pop star? Make friends with street style photographers,” says Church. “Celebrities still have to be talked about, and photographers are the ones that will get them in the headlines.”