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PRINCESS DIANA: 1961-1997

Celebrities a Lucrative Angle for Photographers

Media: Economics draw journalists--including one held in Princess Diana's death--into paparazzi roles.

September 04, 1997|ELEANOR RANDOLPH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Jacques Langevin has always worn his profession as a badge of honor--a "war photographer" who has risked his life covering such news events as war in the Middle East and events in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

This week, however, he has become an "untouchable," as one colleague put it. A "shark," a "paparazzo," a "ghoul," as newspapers labeled those photographers, including Langevin, who are under suspicion of contributing to the death of Princess Diana in Paris over the weekend.

"Everything seems so absurd and stupid," Langevin told journalists after he was released from jail this week. "I've the impression of having fallen into a net."

That net is spun with celebrity gold. News photography confers glamour and status, say veteran photographers, editors and photo agency executives. But it doesn't pay the bills. For that, many photographers and photo agencies have turned to celebrities--or "le people," as the photographers say in France.

"These days a newspaper that doesn't do 'people' sinks," said Jean Durieux, former editor in chief of Paris Match magazine.

"'Photographers follow the market, and photo agencies and magazines have re-centered themselves around what we call 'people,' " said Patrick Zachmann, Paris bureau president of the Magnum photo agency. "I was very surprised to find Jacques Langevin and other news photographers with them. Then again, I was only half surprised because of the changes in the market for pictures."

The push toward celebrities has happened at the same time that news organizations have scaled back their photo budgets, according to several prominent photographers. To cover a war zone now, some freelance photojournalists find that they have to get a grant from a foundation or a private benefactor. Or they can travel "on spec," using their own money and equipment and hoping they can sell the photographs when they return.

"The magazines and news organizations are more and more exploitative, especially of young photographers," said Gilles Peress, an award-winning documentary photographer in New York. "They are not giving out as many assignments, and they have short-term contracts so that they won't have to be responsible, won't have to pay health insurance, etc.

"So young photographers stake their cameras and their lives to go off to Africa or to Bosnia, and maybe they can sell the pictures when they return or maybe they lose their lives, but it is not the responsibility of the news organization," Peress said.

Chasing a superstar is a lot more lucrative. David M. Bodrick Jr., a 27-year-old who specializes in photographing the Kennedys, estimates that a normal photo of a famous subject "just walking around is not worth that much, maybe $100 to $2,000. But if it's special, like Dodi and Di kissing, it starts at $500,000 on up."

Such fees are not all that unusual, say those photographers working in this area. If it is exclusive and involves a top personality, bidding wars can start, with even U.S. tabloids offering $500,000 for hard-to-get shots like one of singer Michael Jackson.

Other photographers, like Bodrick, work on their own. When they get a "good shot," they sell it directly to the tabloids. When the distribution of a photo gets to be too much work, it can go to an agency--which takes between 30% and 50% of the profit.

"It's a tricky thing," said New York photographer Lawrence Schwartzwald. "If you're covering Princess Di, you might get that exclusive picture that's worth $100,000, but maybe you're working a year and spending a good deal of your own money on expensive travel and equipment. Most photographers don't get rich. They hustle along; maybe they have a certain arrangement with an agency or somebody just to get by."

Other photographers work more directly with their agencies, getting assignments and even working in shifts like salaried employees. Langevin, for example, was on duty Saturday night in Paris for Sygma and shot pictures at the Ritz Hotel when Diana and her party left.

He told reporters Wednesday that he then headed for a friend's house along the same route Diana took and eventually came upon the accident scene. "I took some shots from about 15 to 20 meters," he said. Police immediately confiscated his film and took him, five other photographers and a motorcycle driver into custody.

Photo agencies--such as Gamma, Sygma and Sipa--have felt the pressure as owners and investors want more profit than prizes.

"The managers and the little men in gray suits come in, and they make more of the decisions. Bottom line, productivity, profit--they are the key words now, and the pressure is terrific," said Robert Pledge, president of the Contact Press Images agency in New York and Paris.

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