How do you sleep at night? An interview with a paparazzo

“If you’re worried about morality, go get a new fucking job, dude.”

A collage of paparazzi shots of different celebrities
Image by Maxine McCrann
How Do You Sleep At Night

Most jobs are at least a little bit evil. Capitalism and the industries that fuel it are pretty much always either causing massive environmental damage or exploiting people — sometimes both. But certain jobs are viewed as being more unethical than others, and the people who work in those roles are looked down upon by society at large. In this column, we’ll talk to people in some of those roles and try to figure out how they sleep at night.

The work done by paparazzi photographers isn’t technically all that different from other visual journalists and street photographers, but the amount of vitriol aimed toward them is.

They are almost universally disliked. In part, that’s due to the claustrophobic horror on display in video clips of celebrities being swarmed by people taking flash photos directly in front of their faces as they try to walk or drive. And it’s certainly not helped by how often powerful and influential celebrities speak out against the profession: paparazzi are given the opposite of a celebrity endorsement on an almost daily basis.

Rick Mendoza has been working as a paparazzo for over 25 years, and has snapped photos of celebrities including Prince William, Johnny Depp, and Lindsay Lohan. He also shot the video that TMZ founder Harvey Levin credits with turning Kim Kardashian into a celebrity. I spoke to him about the reality of his job, how he feels about anti-paparazzi sentiment, and the time he was run over by Britney Spears.

Mic: How has the industry changed in the period that you’ve been working?

Rick Mendoza: I’m the paparazzi 2.0 version. When TMZ first started, I was one of the first field soldiers out in the streets. We were the first to go out in the street and interview [celebrities] face to face in a paparazzi format. We made it more acceptable. It’s still not liked and appreciated, but it became more mainstream and fun.

How much do you work in a given week?

I’m kind of like a robot. I wake up, I check what’s happening. I’m almost like, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If I go on vacation, I try to incorporate my vacation with celebrities. If I go to concerts or a sporting event, I look for celebrities. Everything I do has to do with celebrities.

Can I ask how much you earn annually?

I could easily break the six digit mark, or I can go under the six digit mark. It fluctuates.

Which of your photos or videos has brought in the most money?

I did a photograph of Zsa Zsa Gabor in the ambulance. She was going to get her leg amputated that day. She’s looking right at me and I’ve easily gotten $300,000 on that one. That surprised me because I would usually make about $5,000 - $20,000 off her. Even the [photo] I got of her husband at her funeral with her urn in a Gucci bag, that didn’t make that much money.

How do you feel about the public perception of your industry?

I love it. I welcome it. I’m almost sorry that I made it acceptable to a certain extent. I wish I would have kept us being the hated ones.

Sure, that guy who got the rare lion sheep or whatever on that mountain is going to get a Pulitzer, or be in National Geographic. La la la, great. Congratulations, man. I don’t give a shit.

I think paparazzi are still hated by a lot of people?

Yeah but not enough. The reason I say that is because we would’ve made more money. Because I made it cool and fun, all these nobodies want to be paparazzos and now they’re taking photos. I should’ve said it’s dangerous, it’s bad, it’s ugly.

Have you gotten any especially strong reactions from people you've photographed?

Every day, but that’s the nature of the beast. I don't care.

Have you been hit by anyone?

I’ve been run over by Britney Spears! She took me down one day when she was coming out of a medical clinic. You always try to keep yourself out of harm's way, but that doesn’t mean harm’s way won’t catch up to you sometimes.

Did you pursue damages from Britney?

Well, I took care of myself and that’s all we’re going to say about this.

Do you think that the complaints the celebrities and public have about paparazzis are fair? I was just watching a documentary where Jennifer Aniston says she feels falsely imprisoned when she’s surrounded by paparazzi, and Jennifer Lopez says she feels her privacy is being invaded. Would you say those are fair criticisms?

I think it comes with the territory. There’s a price to fame. When Halle Berry and Jennifer Garner were in court up in Sacramento [saying], “The children! The children! Don’t photograph the children!” [I said], “This is called public domain. You’re a star and you’re out in the streets and it’s fair game. You belong to the public and the paparazzi has a right to photograph.”

Does it bother you, taking photos of people who don’t want you to take their photo?

Listen, if you hate chocolate ice cream, don’t eat it. I love chocolate ice cream. If it makes you feel bad, don't do it. I do it because it doesn't matter. There’s no law. I'm not going to jail. If you’re worried about morality, go get a new fucking job, dude. Go work at fucking McDonald’s or Starbucks if you have morality issues or ethics issues. I don't have those issues.

You’ve mentioned photographing funerals, ambulances, and nudity. Is there anything you would consider off limits?

It’s entertainment. Don’t think too hard. I’m a smart man, I didn’t join the paparazzi because they’re evil, I joined them because they’re entertaining. We’re talked about more than any other photographer in the world. Sure, that guy who got the rare lion sheep or whatever on that mountain is going to get a Pulitzer, or be in National Geographic. La la la, great. Congratulations, man. I don’t give a shit. It’s entertainment. It’s fun.

With something like the Zsa Zsa ambulance photo you mentioned, is there ever a moment when you’ve paused and thought, “Is this a picture I should sell?”

Well, I didn’t get the shot when Michael Jackson had his ambulance ride to the hospital. I was on the back of the ambulance, my friend shot from the side window. He got that shot, with the tube in his mouth. We had no idea he was dead. That photo sold for 1.3 or 1.4 million dollars. That’s part of history. No one would have believed he died until that photo. People would say, he’s not dead, the government’s hiding him. That’s why it’s so important sometimes to capture reality. Show me reality. I can handle it.

A complaint I’ve seen celebrities make is that paparazzi say rude things to try and provoke a reaction from them. Is that something you do? Is it good for you if a celebrity gets angry?

Celebrities have control. And if they don’t then there’s a bigger issue than just the question that was asked. A question should never provoke you enough to create assault and battery. That’s not acceptable. I ask what I want to ask and if you hit me I’ll see you in court.