Vanessa Díaz exposes violence Latino paparazzi face in ‘Manufacturing Celebrity’

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“Justin Bieber lashes out at paparazzi after car crash,” “Bieber urges crackdown on paparazzi after photographer’s death,” “Miley Cyrus blasts paparazzi as ‘fools,’ defends Justin Bieber after photographer’s death.”

These were just some of the headlines that appeared from coverage following the 2013 death of Chris Guerra, a 29-year-old paparazzo. According to reports, California Highway Patrol officers instructed Guerra, who was trying to snap pictures of the “Changes” singer during a traffic stop, to return to his car, which would require him to walk across four lanes of traffic with no nearby crosswalk. While abiding authorities’ instructions, Guerra was struck by two cars and died.

Most of the immediate coverage and celebrity responses not only centered on Bieber but also vilified Guerra and even suggested that he deserved to die for doing his job.

Vanessa Díaz, an assistant professor of Chicana/o and Latina/o studies at Loyola Marymount University, offers an alternative analysis of paparazzi’s role in the Hollywood industrial complex in her new book, “Manufacturing Celebrity: Latino Paparazzi and Women Reporters in Hollywood.” Díaz argues that it’s racialized and gendered labor that fuels the celebrity news industry. The mostly Latino paparazzi and the mostly white female celebrity reporters grapple with the fallout, which includes precarious situations as well as possible violence and exploitation.

One of the officers at the scene of Guerra’s death said, according to a dashcam recording: “I just told him he couldn’t stand there. F—— idiot, man.” In a Twitter thread, Miley Cyrus wrote that it would be “unfair” to blame Bieber for Guerra’s death because “your mom teaches u when you’re a child not to play in the street.” Cyrus’ thread was met with resounding support, with one commenter writing that “more paparazzi need to die” and that if he saw a paparazzo on the street while driving, he would swerve “to hit the motherf—–.”

Guerra and his occupation were so hated that his family even had to turn off the comments for his memorial video because they’d become so vitriolic.

Vanessa Diaz’s work at People magazine was foundational to “Manufacturing Celebrity.”Vanessa Diaz

The violent words haven’t drawn much scrutiny, Díaz said, especially as paparazzi are often scapegoated as the scourge of the entertainment industry. They were the ones who were blamed for Princess Diana’s death, and subsequently, they’ve been the ones who’ve been accused of infiltrating celebrities’ personal spaces and disregarding their privacy.

Díaz’s work builds upon the years she spent working as a freelance reporter for People magazine. When it comes to Hollywood, Latinos do, in fact, remain nearly invisible both onscreen and off camera. But as Díaz covered events and heard photographers speaking Spanish, she saw that Latinos had been able to carve out a space for themselves as paparazzi.

“That was surprising to me, because people think that there aren’t Latinos working in Hollywood, and it’s like, no,” she said. “Just like Latinos in every realm you see are finding work where they can find work — this was their way into Hollywood.”

Díaz said Latino paparazzi have been derided as “gangs of large aggressive men” traumatizing celebrity children who should be “deported.” Yet as a culture reporter, she saw how integral paparazzi were to the work of those who cover Hollywood—whether the industry admits it or not.

Díaz decided to embed with paparazzi to get a better understanding of their work and the challenges they face. Her book is filled with firsthand accounts of staking out celebrity homes with photographers, most frequently with a paparazzo named Galo Ramirez. At first the other paparazzi didn’t want to speak with her — they were hesitant to trust her and thought she was trying to scoop their work — but Ramirez’s seal of approval and Díaz’s Spanish-speaking ability cleared the way for her to build trust.

Vanessa Diaz’s “Manufacturing Celebrity” investigates Hollywood power structures.Duke University Press

In traveling with the paparazzi and observing their work, Díaz discovered the field’s less-than-ideal working conditions, including how they spent hours in cars, unable to leave to get water or use the bathroom for fear of missing out on a celebrity picture.

She also observed how a saturated market and a lack of industry oversight led paparazzi to be paid low rates for their photographs. Moreover, California legislation criminalizes the profession; photographing a celebrity’s child “because of that person’s employment” is punishable up to one year in prison — but publishing the photo doesn’t violate the law.

The goal of the book, she said, isn’t to make people hate magazines or celebrities. Instead, she hopes her book enables people to think critically about the “abuses of power, labor, racism and gender discrimination” in Hollywood.

Díaz said she gained a greater awareness of the racial politics at play in celebrity news as a Puerto Rican woman working in spaces where people like her are usually underrepresented. She recalled being addressed on one occasion as a reporter from “White People” magazine — which inspired her to conduct the research that’s foundational to “Manufacturing Celebrity.”

“I think that like most people who experienced their lives and are aware of various gendered and racial dynamics, that you start to feel it when you realize you’re the only Latina in a space,” she said, “or you realize that you’re getting assigned to cover things that seem like events that are more focused on people of color, [or] when you go to the events and you see the reactions from celebrities.”

Díaz’s work led her to meet Guerra. She dedicates the book to him, as well as to a former “People” colleague, Natasha Stoynoff, and to her parents.

While some details about Guerra’s death remain unknown, Díaz says Guerra, who was Black and Mexican, “was policed to death.” Just as stories in the aftermath of his death focused on Bieber’s Ferrari, so today do stories about police protests focus on the looting, instead of the racial injustice that has sparked nationwide protests.

“The more that we can kind of reveal these things, the more that I think people can understand that this isn’t just a one-area thing. This isn’t just about critiquing criminal justice. This is about an entire system that makes up the way the country functions,” Díaz said. “And if we’re going to talk about changing or rebuilding or restarting any of these things, it requires reckoning with how all of these different institutional forces are complicit in these same issues.”

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