This guest article, featuring new Vancouver correspondent Sharon Roberts, appears as part of Visual People, a Q&A series devoted to profiling visual creators from a diversity of industries. Keep up to date by subscribing, or following along on Instagram. Join me in welcoming Sharon to the series! Scroll down to read more about her and her work.
by Sharon Roberts
For someone who makes his living taking photographs of celebrities, Kent – not his real name – is a surprisingly reserved and private fellow. Spending his formative years in Vancouver, B.C., Kent moved across the country after high school to study Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University (Toronto). During his summers off from school, he would return to Vancouver, spending time cultivating a hobby of meeting celebrities and getting their autographs. Via his family network, he had connections with the film industry and was often invited along to film sets or on celebrity pick ups to the airport. Feeling a sense of exhilaration from seeing and meeting the celebrities he admired, Kent started to cultivate his hobby back in Toronto during the school year. Toronto being a place that celebrities frequent to promote their movies, he started going to star-heavy events. He describes the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) as the place where his future as a celebrity paparazzi began to crystallize. His journey began with tagging along friends to these festivals, but soon he began to see the same faces, and formed a closer bond with the people taking the photographs.
Fast forward to 2008: Kent had just lost his job at a marketing agency. As luck would have it, one of the other paparazzi whom he had met at TIFF was having a hard time keeping up with his work load, and asked Kent for some help with an assignment. Shania Twain had just separated from her husband Mutt Lang, and the job was easy: Keep an eye on her cottage in Ontario. The idea was to get the first pictures of her after the split. He and his colleague managed to get some pictures almost a week later. That led to other odd-jobs waiting around for pictures. Little by little, he took on more assignments, and what was once a casual hobby soon turned into a full-time gig of finding and photographing celebrities for public consumption.
SR: Kent, tell me about the early days in your career, when you were first getting started.
K: It was the late ’90s, early 2000s. I was just trying to meet celebrities recreationally on the weekends and during summer holidays, all the while trying to get things signed. But this was in the old days, before the internet. If you wanted to get a photograph of a celebrity signed, you would have to go down to the corner store and purchase a physical magazine with the photo you wanted. Then you would have to scan it – scanning would take forever at that time – and print it out. This was before I started taking photos myself. I was within a cluster of people meeting celebrities, so I would either give the print-out of the photo to a friend to get signed, or I’d get it signed myself. At this time, I wasn’t doing it for the money. For me it was more about the accomplishment of meeting who you wanted to meet, and I didn’t sell my signed stuff for the longest time. That’s changed now, though. I was investing so much time and effort that I started to feel like I wanted to be making money. I started selling my signed stuff (which I continue now), in addition to being a paparazzi.
SR: From our past conversations, I know that you’ve sold some of your photographs to some pretty big publications. Tell me about the process of selling your photographs.
K: It’s not something that I’m in charge of – I’ve been represented by an agency since 2009. It works for me because I can’t always know what the market will bear in terms of a selling price. A sales team at the agency will review my photos, make some phone calls and see what the interest level is. Sometimes its even more basic. Editors can see pictures on the agency website and if they like the pictures, they can contact the agency for licensing rights. Most of the time I don’t even know the price the pictures sell for until months later.
The industry is changing a lot right now, though. Splash News went one route – they started offering subscriptions that entitles the subscribers to unlimited access to about 95% of the photos that are available. Photos like Reese Witherspoon shopping on Abbot Kinney Ave. or Gwen Stefani going to Starbucks – common things that you can get all the time. It guarantees the agency consistent income but it’s not great for photographers. It drives down the prices of photos. There was a time when you would get paid $5000 for that photo of Reese Witherspoon shopping but now everyone has digital cameras and cell phones. There’s more people doing it because they think it’s fast money. Theft is a huge deal. A lot of places – outlets not agencies – will steal photos and hope they won’t get caught. If they do, they’ll pay for it. If they don’t the photographer is out income. You used to have to pay a la cart for everything, now you get the meal deal, with drink and dessert included.
Then there’s the 5% of unique photographs that are sold separately, not included in the subscription. That’s stuff that’s exclusive, breaking news.
SR: Can you tell me about a memorable time or experience that you’ve had in your career? What is something that stands out in your mind as being particularly formative or left a lasting impression.
K: I’ll tell you the Twilight story – it’s one of those stories that has a life lesson to it. I had just moved back from Toronto and it was in the middle of the economic downturn in 2008. I was looking for a job in sales and the lead that I had fell through at the last minute. Feeling a little down, I dragged myself out to a dinner party my friend was throwing. It was pouring rain, thunder and lightening outside and I was broke. I had just sold something on eBay and was able to put 20 bucks of gas in my car to get my through the week. It was like that. Then I got a call that the cast of Twilight was at a concert at Richards on Richards. I’m thinking I don’t know, it’s raining, I’m broke, I don’t have my own camera set-up, I don’t have a ticket. One friend offered me a camera to use and the friend on the other end of the line had an extra ticket, so off I went. Kristin Stewart and Robert Pattinson were friends with the band so they were handing out backstage, everyone was having a good time. Now, the thing to realize about Richards on Richards is there isn’t really a backstage. Just a door leading to a narrow hallway so I get there and we are up on the balcony. I can see straight through that door from where I’m standing. I don’t really know how to use the camera I had – it was a Canon and until then I’d been shooting on a Nikon. I basically set it to auto, turned the flash on and snapped somewhere in excess of 300 photographs of Stewart and Pattinson through that door. The concert let out around midnight and they went back to the hotel to keep the night going. I followed and was able to snap some additional photographs of them hanging out and smoking on the balcony at the hotel. They are partying until 6 or 7 a.m. so I finally head home around that time.
After sorting out how to download and edit my own photographs, I emailed them to my editor with a note so they wouldn’t automatically go up on the company website. I was working for an agency at the time. That Monday morning I woke up to a text with the news that the agency had started a bidding war for my photos and the top one went to Popsugar for $10,000. OK Magazine paid $5,000 for one, then all round usage went out as well. By Wednesday, the agency sent up someone from L.A. to teach me how to take photographs and gave me a camera to learn.
We went out again on Saturday and shot some more pictures of Stewart and Pattinson leaving the Blue Water Cafe in Yaletown. They were trying to get a taxi, but a limo driver nearby promised he could get them in his car and would open the door after initially shutting it to give me a chance to take some shots. It’s close quarters in a limo – seats close together, their ankles were touching so there’s all this innuendo there. That’s the kind of narrative that sells and those photos sold really well.
That’s the story of my first big break and when I realized that I didn’t have to look for a printing job any more.
SR: What are you working on right now?
K: Around now Frida Pinto, Leslie Odom Jr. and Orlando Bloom will all be coming Vancouver shooting a movie called Needle in a Timestack. Usually at any given time there’s always one big ticket movie filming here. My agency doesn’t pressure me to work on something that I don’t want to work on. They do give me a heads up about stuff that’s coming to town that might sell well and I’ll take that recommendation into consideration. I don’t want to spend my time on stories that aren’t going to sell.
SR: So how do you know the whens and wheres of tracking down a celebrity?
K: The information about what productions are happening in Vancouver is pretty accessible to everyone and usually the agency provides some information as well. If I get good intel from the agency it’s more likely that I’ll pursue a story. Then I do my own research to fill in the gaps. Take Orlando Bloom for example – he’s doing theatre in London. So let’s just do an experiment right now – if you Google “Orlando Bloom Theatre London”, click on the link and scroll past the synopsis there is a section at the bottom that says “Please Note”. It lists the dates that he’s not performing in the show starting this Friday. From that, I would guess that he’s flying in that day and as there’s only two airlines flying in direct from London, I can make a pretty accurate guess what time he’s going to be arriving at the airport. He’ll only be here about 7-10 days and I’m assuming he’s a one suitcase kind of guy, sitting in first class so he’ll be out the door of airport quite close to the arrival time of his flight. He’s dating Katy Perry right now and she’s not on tour or performing so chances are they’ll be out in the city doing stuff this weekend.
SR: Awesome, thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, Kent!
K: My pleasure.
About the Author
Part project manager, part creative, and full of curiosity, Sharon Roberts is a writer and amateur photographer living and working in Vancouver, B.C. Driven by a deep desire to enhance human understanding through creative fiction and non-fiction storytelling, Sharon strives to see the human element in everything. She takes immense pleasure from people watching and trying to interpret the underlying drives and desires that motivate action.
Her background includes an undergraduate degree in Communication at Simon Fraser University where she spent her time studying the ways that mediated communication shapes how humans interact with one another and the world around us. Complimented by years as a project manager in Visual Effects for feature films, her unique skill set brings a fresh perspective to both the theory and application of artistic story telling and how it can be used to enhance human understanding.
More recently she completed a Masters of Education, Instructional Design from the University of Massachusetts, Boston where she focused her time on researching inter-generational differences and how that shapes communication in the workplace. Her thesis project on project management training for visual effects professionals can be found online here: https://scholarworks.umb.edu/instruction_capstone/25/
A big proponent of the Japanese ideal of Shinrin-yoku or “forest-bathing”, Sharon spends a large amount of time enjoying the mountains, beaches and forests that surround Vancouver, using the natural wonderment as additional inspiration for her work. Recently having discovered an unrelenting interest in bird watching and identification, she sees a synchronicity with her passion for telling stories and being able to identify unique birds in a crowd where she once just thought of them all as the same.
Follow Sharon on Instagram, here.
Do you know someone who leads a visual life, and should be featured in this series? Are you a visual creator and are dying to discuss your work? Cool. Do you have any errors to report? Tell us all about it.
Artwork by Samantha Mehra