This essay will probably be a little longer than usual, so I've broken it up into sections for you. Therefore, you can skip forward to the topics that are relevant to you.
How do you become a paparazzi?
There are certainly many ways to become a paparazzi, here I would like to tell my story. From humble beginnings to everyday life in Bervery Hills.
I startet my career at a small city magazine called "BREMER" in my hometown of Bremen in Germany by taking pictures of events and people. Later on I worked for a news agency, taking photographs of politicians and social life. During my work as a press photographer I came in contact with Germany's biggest newspaper, the "BILD Zeitung".
While working for „BILD“, I stumbled into a much more lucrative business. I shifted my attention to taking pictures of celebrities, and soon I became one of the top German paparazzi. However, Germany quickly grew to be too little for the young lad who yearned to travel the world. So I spent my summers pursuing celebrities in Saint Tropez / France, Porto Cervo / Italy, Puerto Portals / Spain, or Monaco.
In 2010 the German TV network RTL filmed several reports with my colleague and me, for a brief period of time and I also gained a little amount of notoriety. Soon the summer months were no longer enough to satisfy my hunger for hunting. I wanted to go to the metropolises and the big wide world lured me to America.
How do paparazzi know where celebrities are?
Social media platforms weren't as popular back then as they are now, making it much harder to track down a celebrity's whereabouts. However, my colleague and I had an intimate network of insiders who frequently gave us information in exchange for payment. You are more than just a celebrity photographer when you work as a paparazzi. You combine the roles of an investigator, psychotherapist, and data expert. It's crucial to keep a thorough record of all events involving a person.
For example, in the winter, I even analysed and documented the tire tracks of their vehicles to determine whether a celebrity had left their property, just returned and which car was used. In the summer I did the same thing with some sand in front of his driveway. Footprints were also evaluated, photographed and stored in the database. All the data I had steadily collected I had made a separate database for each star.
But occasionally things don't work out as expected. A black Chevy Jeep with a "Bremen license plate" was frequently spotted on a street where a well-known celebrity resides, according to watchful neighbours who called the police. You must be aware that in Germany, the first letters of the location where the vehicle is registered, are always displayed on the license plate. So when I observe a house in Munich with a license plate from my hometown Bremen, it is quite noticeable because the license plate for Munich begins with "M" and not "HB" for "Hansetsadt Bremen". Similar to Ireland but the registration plate is not eternally linked with the car instead it changed when you move to another town or sell the car. Nowadays the rules has changed and you can keep your number plate when you relocate or the new owner will take over.
It didn't take long before a police patrol car followed me and pulled me out a little later to check my identity. When asked what I was doing here in this area, I answered truthfully: I'm photographing squirrels, because that's what I actually did during the observation.
So if I didn't know exactly where a certain celebrity lived and I only knew the city, I had to find out the exact place of residence like a detective. I first drove through the neighbourhoods where the rich people live and stopped at a bakery. In Germany it is customary to get your fresh rolls from the bakery in the morning, in America you drive to the countless coffee shops to get your coffee in the morning. Some celebrities were downright addicted to these coffee to go shops.
Through clever questions that were asked so subtly, I found out all sorts of information directly from the saleswoman without her knowing that I was questioning her and she completely unconsciously gave me precise information about a particular celebrity.
A simple example:
"Good morning, I would like two of the pretzels. Are these the same pretzels that Celebrity X always buys from you?"
"No, Celebrity X always orders the pretzel sticks."
Now I knew that that Celebrity X actually shops here, so that person had to live in the immediate area. Otherwise I would have done the same thing at the next bakery and so on.
In the case of the bakery saleswoman, I usually found out which car the celebrity I was looking for drives and on which days he or she shops here and at what time, and all of that just by asking certain questions with a lot of humor.
The same thing works even better with pizza delivery services. They have the current addresses of the celebrities because they order and have pizza delivered there like everyone else.
Nowadays, it's relatively easy to track down a celebrity, because they provide us with all information we need on their social media channels. They post private photos and let you know what they are plan to do. All you have to do is read, save and analyse their social media channels.
Of course, there were other methods to find out the whereabouts of a celebrity, but I won't go into them in detail.
Who were your informants?
Even though I've been out of the business since 2014, I can't talk about it, just this much and I'm addressing celebrities here: "Don't trust anyone, not even your immediate family."
How to sell paparazzi photos?
Over the years, a network of national and international magazines has been built up. Whenever I was somewhere in a metropolis, I took the opportunity to meet the responsible editors and photo directors in person in order to build a close relationship and know who I was actually negotiating with on the phone.
If you are a beginner then of course you have to build up this network slowly. But don't worry, it'll work itself out. It is important to maintain contact, both with those responsible at the magazines and with your informants. You will spend almost 50% of your time on networking.
I remember one day I had an exclusive story about billionaire and Formula 1 manager Flavio Briatore and Elisabetta Gregoraci but the magazine was just in the final stages of production before it went to print. The story was worth it and the entire magazine's layout needs to be redesigned, but the material had to be delivered quickly.
Back in the years there was no "wifi" on every corner. I had my laptop with a "connect card" in which a SIM card was inserted. The photos were transmitted via the then UMTS mobile network, which no longer exists today. We were far away from the transmission speeds we know today. I sat on the terrace of our finca in Porto Cervo / Sardinia and cursed because the cell phone network and reception were so bad. Today I can only smile about it.
Data science and human patterns
You have to know that every person unconsciously behaves in certain patterns that repeat themselves over and over again. Once you have recognized a pattern, a probability calculation is very simple. It's a bit of mathematics in human beings. Basically everything was just based on collecting data and evaluating it. Incidentally, Facebook, Google, Tesla and manufacturers of smart TVs or smartphones do the same thing to each of us in a much worse way that intervenes even deeper in our private lives that it is better that you don't know anything about it. We have long since passed the scenario of Orwell's "1984". A good example of how people behave in certain patterns helped me to create a photo series about a German celebrity who was not averse to alcohol. I observed him for a week and recognized various patterns, including regular alcohol consumption. One day he was taking his route again and bought a can of beer at the gas station and emptied while driving the car. Later he drank more glasses of beer in a beer garden and was already very drunk.
When he got behind the wheel of his Porsche Cayenne again, I called the police. Not just out of self-interest but above all because of the danger to the general public. In Germany you are obliged to call the police if you have knowledge of a criminal offence. Otherwise you can be sued.
Just a few minutes later, three patrol cars surrounded him and he had to take a breath alcohol test.
At first I sold the photos exclusively, later there were reprints in all magazines. Newspapers report that he lost his driving license for a year and had to pay a fine of several thousand euros.
The German computer scientist David Kriesel once clearly demonstrated what data science is and what can be read from banal data. He captured the articles on a news portal every few minutes over a couple of months up to two years. With this data he was able to find out the authors working hours, when they are on holiday and even which authors are may have a relationship. Just think for a moment about what sensitive data Facebook and Google have about you. You can find the link to the YouTube video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-YpwsdRKt8Q
How to get exclusive photos?
But let's look at this photo. I got some information from an insider who told me that Brazil football player Diego Ribas da Cunha will meet German singer Sarah Connor at Ibiza. They wants to secretly meet on a boat on a certain day. So I got the flight number from one on them and took the next flight to Ibiza to be on location a day earlier.
In this case, I had the time to prepare my approach very carefully. I first scout out the airport and rental car stations, then the entire area around the port, including the yacht rental companies, the restaurants and hotels that come into question. Now my database comes into play and I checked whether either of them has already been to Ibiza. If this was the case, I already have data from the last stay, if not I have to create a new data record. The better the preparation and the information available, the easier it is to get exclusive photos. But don't forget, your informants also want to get a piece of the cake. So You have to care for your informants like a delicate flower because they are your key to exclusive content.
Risk your life as a paparazzi?
Although I was aware that you should never put your life in danger to take a photo, because it's not worth it, I crossed that line.
It was a cold November night in Salzburg / Austria and the movie "Knight & Day" with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz was being filmend. To avoid any images being taken, the film crew had pretty much thought of everything. We had to think of something when we learned that they planned to block off the entire city center and only locals who are living in this part of the city would have access. We made an offer to one of the residents for a few hours in his apartment and he agreed for a few hundred euros.
His apartment was located directly under the roof on the fourth floor of a big building in best location. Right below us was the film set including the place of director James Mangold. But the American crew had experience with paparazzi and the security team was equipped with laser pointers. The laser was focused straight at any inhabitant who attempted to take a picture, directly into the camera's lens. I can't imagine what would have happened if the laser had hit me. My telephoto acts like a magnifying glass and I would probably have been blind on the spot. So I had to be quite carefully.
From my position I was able to photograph the directors script and the display of Tom Cruise's Blackberry cell phone with his music playlist he was listening to.
After a few street scenes were filmed, we heard rumbling from above, something was happening on the roof. I asked the apartment owner if there was a way to climb onto the roof and he showed me a hatch.
I cautiously pushed open the hatch and ascended to the roof. Only the lights of the city below me offered a sufficient amount of light to let me navigate the pitch-black night. I was unaware that the roof had come to an end a short distance from me. Curious and full of adrenaline, I climbed up and reached a chimney to held on to it with one hand, in the other hand I had my camera with a 500mm tele lens which was quite heavy.
Then I spotted Tom Cruise sprinting and firing a gun into the air from a pedestal on the other side of the roof. I had to take this image, that was alI I was thinking about. However, I needed both hands to hold the camera because it was too heavy to do so with one. As a result, I briefly let go of the chimney and relied solely on my feet for standing onto the sloping roof.
After snapping a series of photos I quickly grabbed the sturdy chimney once again to prevent falling.
Only now did I realize what a dangerous situation I was in up there. Just a few meters separated me from the free fall into the depths. The roof was slick, and it was quite dark. I experienced a small panic attack and tried to calm down while searching the roof for the hatch that I had climbed out of.
I finally heard my colleague shouting for me from the hatch, and I was able to reorient myself. On the roof, I creeped slowly, like a sloth, in the direction of the hatch. After a while, I came to my colleague's hand, who took my camera before holding me until I had a firm grip once more.
I was sure that I would never make such a dumb action again.
Sometimes all you need is luck and a lot of patience. I learned that Boris Becker was alone himself in Berlin and that his wife Lilly had left to board a flight back to London.
I knew Boris Becker would take advantage of the situation since I have an excellent understanding of people and have thoroughly researched him in the past. So all I had to do was figure out his whereabouts. I was aware that he resided at the Hotel de Rome, but after spending many hours observing the entrance, I decided to visit some of the typical hangouts for celebrities, such as bars and restaurants, to see if I could find him there. I actually discovered him in the Grill Royal restaurant on the banks of the Berlin river Spree and he was not alone. Next to him sat a dark-haired, young, beautiful woman with whom he was eagerly flirting. He didn't even bother to hide this affair but sat in the middle of the restaurant like he was on a presentation plate. He ordered one bottle of wine after the other, a few drinks in between, and as the alcohol level increased, the two of them grew closer. From the opposite bank of the Spree river I was able to take photos directly into the restaurant with my 600 mm telephoto lens. But I should have a lot of patience. It took a full five hours until I got the decisive kiss photo.
How much money you get?
Once you have a great shot it's all about to sell it. The value of a paparazzi photo is determined by several factors. First of all, of course, who is in the photo? What is the story? An affair sells better than a picture with someone leaving a restaurant. And if it's a good story, the most important question is whether it's exclusive stuff.
Additionally, you must pay great attention to the market and be aware of what is being acquired right now. Pictures like the ones below of LeBron James surrounded by a crowd of photographers have no big value. Those images are sold to agencies and spreaded across several magazines for a few dollars.
If you have exclusive photos, you can negotiate very well. You can limit publishing rights to a country or continent or sell them exclusively worldwide. It looks even better if you can offer both photos and videos. That was one of the reasons because I was working with a video colleague which was absolutely unusual at that time.
No paparazzi in L.A. shared their celebrity addresses with anyone and let anyone else to earn a dime. We broke the system and were always as a team of two, which had great advantages. Even if you have to share the profit, you also have shared costs and shared risks.
As you can see, the prices for a photo or series vary greatly. However, you cannot determine how much a paparazzo gets for a picture. And of course I have always agreed to secrecy in all negotiations, so to this day I can not made any statements about it. I can, however, provide you with some approximate information to satisfy your curiosity. On a scale of 1 to 10, the Boris Becker's photo series shown above received a 6, and I used the money to purchase a brand-new Chevrolet Jeep.
The price of a national story during my active time in Germany for example usually varies from 2.000 to 12.000 Euros, depending on the celebrity and the topic. A global top story can easily reach 100.000 or more.
Fake Paparazzi Stories
But unfortunately, for paparazzi the time has changed. When I take a look at the German market there is not such money anymore. All big magazines doing some fake paparazzi stories with celebrities. They stage some kind of paparazzi content which look like a real story but it's all fake.
Editors make direct deals with celebrities and can guarantee that they won't face lawsuits and subsequent financial penalties. In Germany, a veritable tsunami of litigation has broken out, with every B- and C-list celebrity trying to prevent their images from being published.
The publisher would like to fabricate a paparazzi tale so that both parties would benefit. Big stories such as weddings or baby photos, the publishers buy the exclusive rights and pay several million dollars. A lucrative business for celebrities and publishers. And of course the celebrities themselves contribute to appearing in the magazines. Nowadays they broadcast their entire private lives on Facebook and Instagram, which magazines are happy to print.
Chasing celebrities in L.A.
We rented an apartment in Beverly Hills and the first thing we did was exploring the neighbourhood by using a helicopter.
This gave us an overview of where celebrities reside, where their houses are situated, and where it is best to observe secretly. I took pictures of every house from various angles, as well as close-ups of cars standing on the property including licence plate and the number of entrances and exits. Of course, these images were far superior to anything Google Maps could offer us in terms of quality. Additionally, they were recent rather than decades old. This kind of researching was quite expensive, an hour by helicopter was about 600 Dollars at that time but that was how we Germans managed the matter.
The more information we collect, particularly about escape routes and general environmental details, the better we could react. In addition, the aerial photos of the celebrity houses were easy to sell to agencies, which meant we recouped the costs.
The house of German TV presenter Thomas Gottschalk in Malibu burned down in 2019 during the devastating wildfires in California. And the pictures of Heidi Klum's house were taken when she had her relationship with singer Seal. I easily could take close ups of the cars license plates from the helicopter. The Volkswagen bus had still the German license plate under the American registration. Today she lives in a new house in the gated community of Stone Ridge, Bel Air.
We created a precise list of all the celebrities in question and their exact address. Then we drove by car to the individual addresses and took photos again for our database. We were already able to find competitors who were waiting in their cars in front of the houses. These vehicles and license plates were also noted. Now we had to discover who was having an affair, when a wedding was, and whether anyone was expecting a baby. These stories caught the magazines' interest in particular. However, there were a lot of paparazzi in Los Angeles, making it unlikely that anyone would capture any exclusive pictures.
We thus focused on German celebrities like Heidi Klum, Ralf Moeller (Gladiator) or Thomas Gottschalk in whom Americans either had little interest in or were unaware. That doesn't mean we weren't interested in American stars, we kept our eyes open everywhere.
At this point, I must clarify that, for my own safety, I can only display a small number of individual photographs because it is preferable that no one discovers who actually took some specific pictures.
But the easiest way to spot celebrities in L.A. is to visit the typical coffee shops like Joan's on Third, Urth Caffe, Toast or Ivy in West Hollywood between 10h and 12h in the morning. In L.A. it's quite normal to see some celebrities in public. They do everyday things like you and I do, which definitely includes the morning coffee, doing the grocery shopping or going to a beauty salon like P. Diddy shown in the picture. You also have good chances around Rodeo Drive at lunchtime.
Does some kind of "Anti paparazzi clothing" helps against photos?
Some celebrities, like Paris Hilton, believe they can avoid pictures by wearing some "Anti Paparazzi" scarf or clothing. The truth is that they are only useful for novice photographers. Professionals have no issues with these kinds of clothes. They also only function with a flashlight due to the fabric's ability to reflect light, which underexposes the picture because the camera detect the reflecting light as bright light and closes the aperture or increases the shutter speed. However, this is only functional when the flash is used in the regular ETTL mode or camera in automatic mode, no professional works with the camera's or flash automatic settings.
There isn't much of an impact from this garment; it does radiate a bright light, but it doesn't actually harm the picture.
Moral and ethics
I can say that my perspective has changed since my active paparazzi days, which are now almost ten years ago. I don't wish to follow Immanuel Kant and elevate morality and ethics to the highest level, but just using common sense today makes me wonder about some of the pictures I shot back then.
Particularly when I consider how many relationships I've ruined by making affairs public or how I've degraded famous individuals in other ways by taking pictures they don't want the world to see of them.
But one must understand that human curiosity and a desire for rumours influence our nature. We are aware of this from our job, where rumours about a co-worker circulate in groups or behind closed doors. Facebook allows you to view someone being insulted everyday. Sadly, that is also a characteristic of people. It is always based on the principle of evaluating yourself and devaluing others.
But anyway, there is something else that you shouldn't ignore. Celebrities and paparazzi form a kind of symbiosis, there is no doubt about it, because both the celebrity and the paparazzi benefit from each other. However, there are limits that must not be exceeded. The private property may never be entered and photos of a celebrity on his property are also prohibited. It is also clearly against all rules of decency that no one should be put in danger or injured through paparazzi actions.
Unfortunately, many "Paps" - the typical street paparazzi - have almost lost all decency. Some celebrities are harassed or even forced to stop their cars. I always distanced myself from the "Paps" and the ways they work. I concentrated on exclusive photos and was therefore almost invisible and sometimes at far distance while taking my pictures.
I appreciate you reading this article about paparazzi. Please feel free to ask any queries you may have in the comments section.