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Point, shoot and sell: Citizen paparazzi take to the streets

Strolling down a tree-lined street in Manhattan’s West Village, you happen to pass an A-list celebrity walking her Chihuahua. Furtively, you whip out your cell phone and capture a snapshot of the starlet scraping puppy poop into a plastic bag.

For laughs, you could share the digital photo with a few friends.

Or, for thousands of dollars, you could share it with the world by selling it to a “citizen paparazzi” agency on the Internet.

Paparazzi madness has been fueled by a cultural obsession with celebrity for decades. But as the cost of digital cameras decreases, and the quality of cell-phone cameras increases, a new breed of photographer and videographer has begun to emerge: Enter the waparazzi.

WAP, which stands for Wireless Application Protocol, refers to a handheld device’s ability to access information instantly. You can send videos or photos of celebs via text message to amateur photo agencies around the world—all in the comfort of your own palm.

In recent years, more tabloid magazines have begun accepting picture submissions from non-professionals. Perhaps the most famous example of that is a 2004 photograph of Britney Spears taken the night she wed childhood friend Jason Alexander at the Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas.

Spears’ lawyers annulled the marriage two days later, snowballing a media frenzy over the pop-princess’ first marriage.

People magazine exclusively published a picture taken that night, but it wasn’t shot by a paparazzo.

According to peoplepaparazzi.com, an online agency that encourages the public to “SNAP, SEND, and SELL,” the snapshot of Spears and her 48-hour-hubby was sold for $150,000 by an unidentified couple who also exchanged “I Do’s” there that night.

Splash News and Picture Agency launched peoplepaparazzi.com in January 2006; similar online citizen paparazzi agencies continue to proliferate. These sites include Cash4yourpics.com, Scoopt.com, Spymedia.com, and Thesnitcherdesk.com.

The New York-based media company Gawker.com said that it plans to incorporate more amateur photo submissions as a way of enhancing its popular “Gawker Stalker Map,” which maps out celebrity sightings around the city each day.

Defamer.com, a popular gossip blog, includes a “Citizen Paparazzi” column where such photos of celebrities collecting baggage at airline carrousels or shopping at H & M are fodder for snarky critique.

But not everyone who happens to be camera ready during a celeb sighting sees the value in cashing in on it. Last month in Manhattan, Brad Cohen was walking to work when he found himself face-to-face with Jessica Simpson filming a movie near Union Square. “She basically just walked right in front me,” he described. “I took a few dozen, rapid-fire photos of her before her bodyguard stopped me. The paparazzi saw me and were not happy. They definitely realized I had an advantage over them because I was able to get so much closer.”

But Cohen, who views celebrity obsession as a form of societal madness, didn’t see the value in cashing in on the pictures and instead uploaded them to the public picture-sharing site, Flickr.

“I'm not looking to make any money off of this,” Cohen explained. “Perhaps if a publication had offered me $1,000 or more for a photo of Simpson, I would have sold one—but for me, it’s not about the money. I was just taking pictures because it's my hobby.” It’s a hobby that could make him rich.

email: brk2101@columbia.edu; ars2157@columbia.edu