There is an invisible population of Latino male photographers who produce content for American celebrity weekly magazines such as People and Us Weekly. Colloquially known as “paparazzi,” these mostly Latino and Latin American men are highly skilled but are also precarious professional day laborers who sell their photos, mostly of white celebrities, to hungry news media. Since 2002, the demographics of Los Angeles paparazzi photographers have shifted from predominantly white men to predominantly Latino-identified men, including (im)migrant and United States-born Latinos. While they form part of the labor chain of celebrity media production that builds that wealth and fame of Hollywood glamour, Latina/o/x paparazzi are both hidden and scapegoated.
Recent calls and legislation aimed to protect famous white women from perceived hordes of immigrant men describe Latino paparazzi as “gangs” of “pack animals,” “thugs” and “illegals” who threaten white celebrities’ lives and, by extension, white America. Based on over ten years of ethnographic fieldwork in Los Angeles with Mexican and Salvadoran paparazzi, this talk illuminates how an unlikely demographic of cultural producers plays a central role in what Díaz conceptualizes as “the Hollywood Industrial Complex.” It situates Latina/o/x paparazzi’s criminalization within a recent shift toward a fame economy in the United States, detailing how they face violence and even death on the job.
Drawn from Díaz’s book Manufacturing Celebrity (Duke University Press, 2020), this talk focuses on racial politics in labor division among Latino paparazzi photographers, demonstrating how the unique demographic and professional positions these paparazzi occupy within the labor chain of celebrity media production have made them convenient scapegoats. Rather than ancillary to the current climate of celebrity obsession and anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States, Latina/o/x photographers’ invisible labor and the violence they experience are integral to the current climate of racial aggression and anti-immigrant xenophobia.
Vanessa Díaz is an interdisciplinary ethnographer, filmmaker, and journalist. Her research focuses on the ways race and gender impact labor markets and practices in the culture industries across the Americas. Díaz’s first book, Manufacturing Celebrity: How Latino Paparazzi and Women Reporters Build the Hollywood Industrial Complex, was recently published by Duke University Press. Grounded in her experience as a red carpet reporter for People magazine, Manufacturing Celebrity focuses on hierarchies of labor as well as ethnoracial and gender politics in the production of celebrity-focused media. The research for Manufacturing Celebrity was supported by numerous grants and fellowships, including from the Ford Foundation Fellows/National Academy of Sciences, the Smithsonian Institute, and the Historical Society of Southern California, among others. Díaz is a co-author of UCLA’s 2017 Hollywood Diversity Report and is currently collaboratively producing a documentary about the Latino paparazzi of Los Angeles titled Pappin’ Ain’t Easy.
In addition to her research on media and popular culture in the United States, she has also done extensive research on cultural production in the Caribbean and among its diasporas. In 2006, she completed her independent feature-length documentary Cuban HipHop: Desde el Principio (From the Beginning), which recounts the history of the Cuban hip-hop movement while exploring how Afro-Cuban youth use hip-hop to defy misconceptions about censorship in Cuba by delivering social critiques of racism and poverty on the island. Díaz is called upon by publications ranging from The Atlantic to The Los Angeles Times to comment upon major events in popular culture. She is able to provide necessary context to understand how and why particular events capture the American popular imagination, while simultaneously revealing the hidden labor and racial struggles involved in the production of popular culture.