The tabloids erupted this week with photographs of actress Kristen Stewart and her alleged girlfriend Alicia Cargyle, a visual effects producer, on the beach in Hawaii. Seeing the two women play games and hang out on the beach launched a firestorm of commentary about the nature of their relationship, adding fuel to the existing fire of speculation about whether the two women are dating. The illicit photographs don’t just bring the long history of tabloid journalism to mind, though. They’re also a reminder of the growing acceptance of surveillance culture and invasions of privacy in the United States and elsewhere; after all, if it’s okay to publish paparazzi photos on the front page, why not hack cloud storage and release celebrity nudes?
In a landscape where the lives of public figures, especially women, are painstakingly followed by paparazzi and rabid fans, it’s not surprising to see increasingly intrusive methods for collecting photographs and personal information about the lives of celebrities. That was brought home this summer with Celebgate and the release of hundreds of nude photographs of Jennifer Lawrence and other prominent celebrities—Stewart included.
In a way, the hacking was really more like a natural extension of the way privacy in general is viewed. It’s perhaps not surprising that the release of personal images would happen in a landscape where paparazzi routinely stalk public figures for images that are sometimes just as intimate. Kate Middleton, for example, was captured topless at a private French residence in 2012, much to the fury of the royal family. While Closer, the French magazine that printed the photos, claimed that the royal couple was within public view, the images were clearly taken from a considerable distance with the aid of a telephoto lens. When a photographer half a mile away can take a snap, the “in plain view” test would seem to have failed. Under those circumstances, the difference between violation by paparazzi and hacker can sometimes feel considerably blurred.
Aggressive photojournalism has long been a part of life for public figures. Female celebrities in particular have had uncomfortable run-ins with paparazzi seeking not just images of their personal and daily lives, but intimate photographs of them engaged in activities they might prefer to keep private. Britney Spears was so frustrated by her run-ins with paparazzi that she commented rather unsubtly on them in a music video, while Lady Gaga has an entire song dedicated to them. Jennifer Aniston has been closely followed by photojournalists for much of her acting career, and Bjork once pushed right back when a photographer got in her face.
Kanye went ballistic on a paparazzo, Amy Winehouse won an injunction to keep photographers away from her home, and Jackie O. had the Secret Service destroy a photographer’s camera. In perhaps one of the most famous instances of the intrusive role of paparazzi in the lives of their subjects, Princess Diana was killed in a car chase in 1997 as she tried to evade photographers, one reason the royal family was so enraged by the 2012 photos of Kate Middleton.
The tabloid industry profits from gross invasions of privacy, and in many ways, we directly support such invasions by continuing to buy papers that feature them. This kind of checkstand journalism, designed to draw the eye with salacious photos and promises of more within, has become a ubiquitous part of life across the globe, and it’s eroded boundaries when it comes to reasonable expectations of privacy.
When Dax Shepard and Kristen Bell protested the paparazzi taking photos of their children, AKM GSI photo agency owner Steve Ginsburg replied. responded, “It is our constitutional right to take the picture!” Thus, even celebrities’ children are fair game, and they should be more careful if they want to avoid being caught in compromising positions. The concept of privacy lies seems beyond the ken of such critics, who turn the blame onto celebrities, rather than onto the media consumers who snap up the publications produced by companies that pay photojournalists vast sums for exclusive pics. Under this logic, people should not become famous if they want to maintain their privacy, or they should prepare to lead every aspect of their lives under a glaring public eye.
Under these conditions, the step from images taken by paparazzi to exploiting photographs obtained through hacking doesn’t seem too far. While tabloid journalism is legal—though some photographers skirt the boundaries when it comes to privacy laws—it sets the stage for less legal disclosures of the private lives of celebrities. Don’t want to be photographed on the beach while you’re on a private vacation? Don’t go to the beach on vacation. Don’t want your nude photos distributed across the Internet? Don’t store them in the cloud.
While Celebgate may have sparked outrage, we seem remarkably complacent when it comes to tabloid journalism, as seen here, when Stewart and Cargyle were obviously followed to the beach and photographed without their permission. An interaction that should have been private was suddenly turned public by virtue of the fact that one of the women is famous and photographers stand to profit from following celebrities on the off chance that they’ll engage in newsworthy behavior. Just days later, Stewart was telling autograph hunters to get out of her face, and the media were scrambling to report it, thanks to the photographers who trail her wherever she goes, seeking the next big scoop.
Commentators are lasciviously speculating on what the two women were doing at the beach and the implications for their relationship, breaking down the photographs in painstaking detail. But the photographers who took these images, the people who violated the privacy of their subjects, are nowhere to be seen, much like the hackers behind the keyboards that brought down the cloud and put celebrities’ private images in the public eye. There’s a certain lack of ability to connect violations of privacy like these images and Celebgate; one is business as usual, perhaps distasteful but perfectly legal, and the other is abhorrent.
Having your private images released to the world is indeed awful, but where does the line lie when it comes to having people take pictures of you while you’re engaged in private activities versus having people steal your own images? If you’re taped having sex on a beach, as happened to Daniela Cicarelli in 2006, how much does that differ from taking those images yourself and having other people distribute them? Here, the line between tabloid photos and the distribution of personal images starts to blur, because both are actually about the dissemination of photographs of people engaged in activities they would prefer to keep private.
In this context, the difference between Stewart’s Celebgate photos, released without her permission, and these beach shots, taken by someone else but still published without permission, seems much more complicated. While it may have been perfectly legal to follow Stewart and take her picture—though Hawaii does have a paparazzi law, the Steven Tyler Bill, and photographers may have violated it—and definitely not legal to hack her accounts and publish her private photos, the two cases are not as far apart as they might seem. Stewart, like other celebrities, has the right to privacy even though she’s a newsworthy individual.
If Stewart had wanted to be photographed, she likely would have chosen a public venue. These images, showing a relaxed, smiling, and happy Stewart, clearly don’t speak to a woman making a public appearance. Instead, they’re private, intimate moments. They may be precisely the kind of thing that leads to big paychecks for photographers, but they’re violating and unpleasant. The failure to connect these kinds of violations with their more obvious illegal counterparts speaks to our desire to retain our tabloid view of the world, one in which public figures are always on display, even when they want to take time off.
Photo via shot7photos/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)