A Photographer Explains How Staged Celebrity Pictures Work

Image: Getty

Image: Getty

When The Sun  released photos of Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston kissing, after the initial surprise subsided, the question on everyone’s mind was: ‘Is this staged?’. Without doubting the validity of their relationship (which is, quite frankly, none of our business), it did prompt speculation that perhaps the pair decided to take control of the situation and release the news on their on terms.

To get a better understanding of how the world of paparazzi set ups work, Cosmopolitan.com spoke to the New York-based paparazzo and creator ofStupid Famous People, Justin Steffman.

Do you think the Taylor and Tom pictures are staged? Why or why not? 

Taylor Swift is a celebrity who won’t walk outside without perfect make-up and great fashion, and she smiles at every photographer to make sure they all get beautiful images. There is an unspoken deal between Swift and the paparazzi, and her bodyguards make it clear. If we act professionally, and listen to their instructions, then she will cooperate and everyone gets what they want. We get nice pictures, and she looks great in the magazines. She takes an entirely different approach to paparazzi than most celebrities do. It’s all about business for her. Every time she steps outside is a new opportunity for her to look good in the magazines. Certain celebrities, like Taylor, not only accept that paparazzi are a part of the business, but they actually go out of their way to use us as a tool for publicity.

My first instinct when seeing the pictures of Taylor and Tom is that they are definitely staged. But I’m friends with the paparazzo who is credited with those images, and he is one of the best in the business when it comes to capturing sneaky pictures. Taylor loves to have control, and I’m sure she absolutely hates that someone was able to catch her sharing an intimate moment with her new love interest. But, like I said, if it’s a huge news story, you always have to wonder, don’t you?

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Why would a celebrity ever set up and stage photos?

The biggest reason is money. But they also release photos because they want to have control of their own image.

Many set-up photos include a paid product endorsement, where a photo agency works as a middleman between a celebrity and a company who has a product to sell. It could be the latest phone, food, beauty product, or something as simple as them being seen shopping at a certain retail outlet. Some photo agencies specialise in these types of fake paparazzi photos. They usually try to make them look natural and candid, but in reality, the celebrity and the photographer are working together. It’s a paid photo-shoot and the celebrity gets a big cheque. The readers of tabloid magazines and blogs have no idea.

Control is another big reason for staging photos. There are certain celebrities who hate being photographed by paparazzi and they will do anything to avoid it. When your image is such an important part of your career, the last thing you want is to be photographed looking badly. Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds are a good example of a celebrity couple who hate paparazzi, but you will see nice photos of them released on a regular basis. Those photos are totally set up. When they see paparazzi in real life, they put their heads down and hide their faces — unless they are promoting something.

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Another example is when there is high demand for a certain photo. When Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s daughter Apple was first born, they worked directly with an infamous paparazzi photographer in New York. Together, they staged the first baby photos and made them look like candid pictures, then they sold the shots to a major magazine. The pictures were rumoured to sell for upward of a million dollars. The paparazzi got a cut, and they took the rest.

Kim Kardashian is the best example of a celebrity who releases staged paparazzi photos. Kim has a personal photographer who she texts regularly. This man flies around the world, going wherever she asks him to be, and they work together to produce the latest pictures of her. She reviews every image before they start selling them to magazines. If they shoot on a beach, these images are heavily Photoshopped and she chooses her favourites to sell.

How frequently does this happen? 

Very often. I can’t remember the last time I flipped through a tabloid or browsed a gossip blog without seeing set-up shots in the mix.

How much would staged pictures like the Taylor and Tom ones get?

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Enough to put a down payment on a very nice house. Most paparazzi have heard rumours that the first shots of Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal looking cosy together on a sidewalk in Brooklyn were staged. They were shot with a long lens from a great distance, and the photographer had to put time into the job. But many people believe that his tip came from inside Taylor’s own camp.

Have you ever staged pictures?

The most interesting celebrity I’ve ever worked with directly to do staged pictures was Amanda Bynes during her very public mental breakdown. She asked me to meet her at an IHOP restaurant in Harlem, of all places, and the first staged shots with her happened on the sidewalk outside. She talked a lot about how the magazines always published photos of her looking ugly and how she wanted to look beautiful. After the shoot, she deleted all of the pictures she disliked and I sent the other ones out to the magazines. A few days later, she was having a small party and wanted to do another staged shoot. Those images ended up on the cover of a tabloid as well, but it backfired when they ran them alongside a very negative (although honest) story about her unhealthy lifestyle at the time.

What are telltale signs of a staged shot? 

Most of the staged shots look silly and are very obvious to a trained eye. If it’s a huge news story, you always have to wonder, don’t you?