Snapping up a night on the town with the paparazzi

It’s not just health workers who have welcomed the smoking ban with open arms, hoping it will encourage people to give up and lighten the workload a bit in the respiratory unit.

As I stand outside a swanky London bar that’s playing host to a showbiz shindig, hordes of people are puffing away on the pavement behind a velvet rope. Among them is squeaky clean pop star Rachel Stevens, fag in hand, who’s slyly trying to creep behind another guest as the paparazzi blast away at her.

Emap men’s monthly, Arena, is hosting the Arena O2 awards at Mocoto in Mayfair, but as my invitation was lost in the post (we’ve moved offices, guys!) I’m spending the night loitering on the pavement outside, spending an evening with the people who are regularly accused of murdering the People’s Princess.

My night started off driving around London with Harsha, my guide. A night pap for Big Pictures, she normally begins her shift cruising round the restaurants favoured by the rich and famous. We check out the likes of Cipriani, The Ivy, Nobu and J Sheekey looking for clues, such as another pap standing outside.

“Not all of us get tips for everywhere,”

Harsha explains. “But you know who gets tips at certain places. I get tipped at clubs, so if I’m seen at certain clubs then people know that I’ve been tipped, so they’ll all wait and see what’s going on.”

Harsha doesn’t conform to the typical image of a grizzled pap – she’s female, slim, pretty and only 25. After university she became a TV runner but got fed-up with the poor pay and started turning up at premieres with a camera.

She made friends with the photographers, who helped her sell her first picture.

“Starting out was alright, because I was the only female pap out there. Being a girl they didn’t see me as a threat anyway, but a few people regret it now,” she says.

It’s a quiet night and after an hour or two of driving, it doesn’t look like much is happening.

Harsha’s options are to pick a restaurant and stand outside on the off-chance someone is inside, or ring around her Big Pictures colleagues to see what else is happening in town.

Big Pictures normally has 10 photographers (staff and freelance) out and about in London each night, upping that to 12 during the day.

Fellow Big Pictures pap, Darren, greets us outside Mocoto, and scrolls through his camera showing us pictures of celebrities (pops stars, actors and supermodel Lily “Size 0” Cole) posing by the entrance on their way in, so we know who to look out for later.

He points out a couple of rock bands, but as none of the members are dating supermodels or preaching about the environment Harsha admits she’d never recognise them if they came out, summing up for me why it tends to be only the more PR-driven stars who are papped falling out of nightclubs drunk as lords.

The celebs are all inside schmoozing and picking up awards (warm and drunk, unlike me)

and the wait starts. We’re joined by a handful of other paps including Mark, a freelance who’s just given socialite Tara Palmer-Tomkinson a lift home from a party after taking her picture.

(It turns out it’s quite common for them to double up as taxis for drunk celebs. The week before Harsha gave an EastEnders actress a lift home when she couldn’t find a cab.) There are five photographers outside – which is less than normal for this sort of event, Harsha tells me.

She explains that the “old-school” paps are becoming increasingly frustrated with how saturated the market has become. TV documentaries have glamorised the industry, and hordes of inexperienced photographers are now trying their luck.

Harsha says: “When I started four years ago, you turned up on a job and there were 10 of you there, all from different agencies. You thought ‘shit, there’s way too many here’. But now 10 is minimum and you’re happy.

“When I started, if we knew someone was inside the club we’d try and hide. No one is going to play up if they know there’s a pap outside, and if they were none the wiser they’d do something stupid and you’d get a lot of money for it.

“Now celebs will come out, see there’s loads of photographers and go back in to sober up or put their make-up on. And the money situation is exaggerated – everyone thinks they’re going to make thousands from one picture. It’s stupid.”

Being freelance used to be the most lucrative way of doing things, but since competition has increased the price of pictures has dropped – being staff for a big agency is now considered the safest option. Big Pictures pays well, and it being a global company Harsha is hoping she’ll get the opportunity to travel.

Freelances Mark and Chi agree with Harsha that the documentaries make it out to be the easiest job in the world. “They cut down a sevenhour night into a 30-minute documentary,” complains Mark. “We’re tempted to make video blogs to show how much waiting around is involved.”

Mark says he doesn’t mind if there are too many people, as “half of them can’t take a decent picture anyway”, but Chi complains it means there isn’t enough space to move around.

“Mind you,” says Mark. “Lily Allen wouldn’t have kicked you if there had only been five people standing outside the club. Not that I’m condoning her behaviour, of course.” Chi was the lucky pap to get angry pop star Lily Allen’s trainer in his lens, which it turns out made him a tidy sum and covered a few payments on his new motorbike.

Celebs lashing out can make paps a tidy bonus, which is why the other photographers don’t understand Harsha’s decision not to call the police when an A-list comedian stole her mobile and ran off down the road with it.

“I hate him,” she cries. “He got right down in my face and called me the c word!”

The other paps say she could have cashed in by selling the story – accompanied by pictures of the police banging on his door.

A couple of the paps notice Rebecca Loos (aka thorn in Victoria Beckham’s side) having a fag outside Mr Chow’s, a restaurant next to the club – and, with nothing better to do, run off to take her picture. Harsha, however, stays where she is, scowling. She’s not a fan, and says she prefers to shoot “proper celebrities who have actually done something”.

“I especially hate shooting Big Brother stars, but when it’s a quiet night and there’s nothing else to do, you’ll pap them.”

On cue, a car pulls up and out steps Joe Mott, one time Daily Star gossip columnist and ex-boyfriend of Girls Aloud’s Sarah Harding, looking rather dandy in a ridiculous hat. I protest heavily at any of them even considering taking his picture, and as he no longer has Harding on his arm he is left unpapped as he tries to point out his name on the guest list.

Pop star Will Young pops out for his only cigarette of the night (but friends crowding round and hanging on his every word obscure the shot) and I have a bit of a gossip with some bloke who was in Snatch, and who also goes unsnapped.

Between celebs, the paps amuse themselves, smoking and joking around, taking shots of each other to put up on Facebook.

After midnight, smoking guests are ushered inside because of Westminster Council’s regulations, but amusement comes in the form of a couple of drunken gossip columnists who jog past, chasing some eastern European women down the road.

“We’re trying to work out if they’re hookers,” one explains cryptically. By my notepad and dictaphone they assume I’m one of them, but when I tell them I’m with the paps they both turn their noses up. The paparazzi, it seems, are often not regarded as members of the press, with fellow photographers apparently guilty of the most snobbery.

“They call themselves the proper photographers,” say Harsha. “That’s how they see themselves – you’re either one of us or one of them.

If you have an official photographer who does events and they’re made to stand outside for an event and you have all the paps there too, then they’ll say to the celebrity ‘I’m working press, can you stop for me?’ And you’re like, ‘What do you mean working press. What are we?'”

A few bad paps have spoilt it for the rest of them, I’m told, meaning that they feel that that they are now seen as “the enemy”.

Lily Cole stumbles out of the club and marches down the road, legs like a giraffe, and Harsha chases her into her awaiting car. It’s almost 1am and Harsha’s looking stressed. With only a few pictures worth filing it’s not been the best night, so far.

I’m flagging, and with an early start I decline the offer of going on to wait outside a nightclub down the road. Dodging to avoid a drunken girl who’s fallen off her high heels I head off into the night, almost bumping into Joe Mott as he is papped all the way to his car. But I don’t think either of us made the front page.

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