Dying to take a celebrity photo

An amateur photographer is hit by a car snapping a photo of the singer's white Ferrari -- and he wasn't even in it

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Published January 2, 2013 3:26PM (EST)

In what immediately qualifies as the worst way to die of the new year thus far, a Los Angeles paparazzo was killed Tuesday while trying to obtain photographs … of Justin Bieber's car.

Bieber was reportedly not even in his white Ferrari when it was pulled over by California Highway Patrol for speeding — a friend of the singer was behind the wheel while Bieber was elsewhere. But the car – and Bieber's vehicular comings and goings – are familiar to local lensmen. In November, Judge Thomas Rubinson dismissed a reckless driving charge against photographer Paul Raef, who in July was involved in a high-speed freeway chase in pursuit of Bieber. At the time, Raef's frantic driving, at speeds over 80 mph, prompted several 911 calls. But Robinson ruled that a 2010 law meant to curtail that kind of potentially dangerous behavior, "in pursuit of photos for commercial gain," could conflict with legitimate First Amendment-protected news gathering.

As it turned out, the 29-year-old still-unnamed would-be paparazzo — the Los Angeles Times reports the photographer was not a professional —  didn't die in hot pursuit. He was killed instead by a Toyota Highlander SUV while crossing Sepulveda Boulevard after shooting photos of Bieber's car. TMZ reports CHP had twice asked the man to return to his own vehicle before he was struck.

What's most surprising about the man's death isn't that it happened. It's that this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often. It's been over 15 years since Princess Diana was killed while being pursued by paparazzi in a Paris tunnel. Since then, anyone with camera – or a phone — has the potential to shoot a lucrative photograph. Sitting in a cafe while a celebrity eats? There's always a gossip site to sell it to. Lucky enough to be standing on the subway platform while a commuter meets his death? That's a front page right there. As a commenter on the Daily Mail noted Wednesday, the temptations are great when we all know that "one picture could be worth a fortune."

But what makes this story unique – and offers some small hope of serving as a wake-up call – is that the oft-repeated tale of the celebrity hunted down by crazed paparazzi always paints the star as the potential victim. Now, however, coming on the heels of some spectacularly dangerous amateur photo gathering during Hurricane Sandy, there's the chance that reckless shutterbugs seeking that one great, sellable shot will realize that the risk isn't just to the subject. They might think twice before going out into the midst of a storm. Or at least ask themselves if it's worth dying on a highway to get a photo of some pop star's Ferrari.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Picks Journalism Justin Bieber Media Criticism Paparazzi