We Are Become Paparazzi, Photographer of Worlds

As I mentioned, last week I saw Cat Power at the Vogue Theatre. As soon as the lights dimmed, a bunch of eager young things stormed the area in front of the stage. When Ms. Power strode out of the wings, the standing audience was probably ten people deep before the first row of seats.

I was up in the balcony, so I had an excellent view of what happened next. As the band kicked into the first song, dozens of people whipped out their cameras and camera phones. The crowd glowed not with the warm aura of lighters held aloft, but with the cold blue glow of device displays.

(I’m reminded of a germane Doonsbury–or possibly Bloom County–cartoon. It’s a scene from a standing crowd at a concert. Nobody has a lighter because everyone has stopped smoking. Someone suggests “hold up my beeper–it glows.)

For the first few songs, there were always at least ten cameras visible from the balcony. The venue had signs telling people to turn off their cameras’ flash, and these were mostly heeded.

I’m not complaining about this. Aside from the worrying possibility of documenting an event instead of experiencing it, I can see little downside.

It is, however, a remarkable sea change. A decade ago you’d have gotten a stern warning or booted out of the venue for waving around a camera. I’ve got a Dave Matthews bootleg recording where Dave, from the stage, asks an audience member to turn off a camera (“I’m sure you’re a nice person and all, but will you turn that mother-fucker off.”).

Now, though, nobody seems to mind. I’m sure that musicians recognize the value in camera ubiquity. All that digital content just helps spread their brand.

I am getting old, though, because all those cameras feel a little rude. The presumption is that Cat Power has given her tacit permission by appearing on stage, but that’s actually a very new idea.

That idea is a second cousin to the argument that the paparazzi often makes. That a person’s fame makes them fair game, whether they want their photo taken or not.


  1. Well, in a private venue, you are the mercy of the rules set by the person in the venue. In the public it’s fair game.

    But any decent person will respect someone’s wishes to be photographed or not. I passed by Jennifer Aniston on the street when she was filming in Vancouver a while ago, and I just walked by without pulling out my camera. But the laws are unfortunately in favour of the photographers in public areas.

  2. Reminds me of when I saw the Foo Fighters when they came to town recently. I was up in the higher section, and had a fair view of people below and in the standing only area near the stage. It was like looking into a night sky, except with more flashes.

  3. The no-camera policy is enforced by the venue more often than the artist or even their brand manager if they are lucky or successful enough to have one. For instance, if you go to a show at The Royal Theatre (on Broughton) or The MacPherson (Government), the theatre manager will come talk to you personally. I have seen this many, many times.

    As Weird Al would say, “Cell phones. Yeah man, everyone’s got ’em.” x16

  4. I used to shoot a lot of concerts in the 80s, and hardly every got hassled about my camera gear. I don’t think concert managers got anal about photos and videos until the 90s, when megastars started to limit image captures to their authorized photographers, authorized videographers, and a few media photogs herded into position for one or two songs.

  5. I had kids and stopped attending concerts regularly before this change took place, so it still seems weird to me — even though I like the new camera openness.

    I took the risk of bringing my DSLR to the Police show last May, and was happy to show it in the bottom of my bag at the door. The guard said “no professional cameras,” so I said I’d be happy to take it back to the trunk of our car. But she said, “no, that’s fine” and let me keep it with me.

    And so I got a bunch of nice photos, even sneaking on my long lens when the staff inside GM Place weren’t looking. I think I was less obnoxious than a lot of the small-camera people though. That’s because with a good DSLR, I didn’t need to use a flash.

    Anyway, I’m happy for this change. There are a lot more good photos (and crappy ones too) of interesting musical acts now than there used to be.

  6. Even if I felt allowed to bring in a camera to a show, I wouldn’t, not just because it’s a valuable item but moreover because, like you said, I want to experience the show. I have a hard enough time concentrating without trying to take photos. You miss stuff (if they’re a good act). I took a disposable camera to my 2nd concert and the results were abysmal.

    Foo Fighters was one of those “experience” kind of shows and I felt the best way to document it was actually to write about it the next day. I was surprised at the lack of lighters, but didn’t really notice any cameras. I was closer to the floor so I suppose that’s why. It would have made for great photos, but what are photos without memories to go along with them?

  7. I am in the (apparently small these days) minority who detests cameras at live shows. For me it cheapens the experience of listening to the music and watching the musicians perform. Also, I’m not 6′ tall and it can be pretty hard to see the stage with everyone in front of you holding their cellphones aloft…

    I believe the best shows will stay with you long after the last encore; not because you’ve got a few grainy photos on your cellphone, but because you remember the music, the energy and the shared experience of the performance.

  8. I was actually a photographer at the Juno awards last weekend. What’s funny is that most of us photographers actually thought you’d be better off buying a regular ticket and just bringing in a point and shoot. They had purposefully put all the legit photographers far away from the stage and forced them all to use huge lenses. But the people having dinner at the front (on their $50 tickets or whatever) had great shots using their point and shoot cameras.

  9. The last time we went to see the Barenaked Ladies, I was caught off guard by the new openness to cameras. I purposely did not bring my camera, and then was surprised to see a lot of them amongst the audience at the Orpheum. When I expressed my surprise to my wife, the lady next to her pulled out her camera and showed us the pictures she had of her and her daughter alongside Steven Page and Ed Robertson, all standing in front of our seats. Turns out that if we hadn’t stopped for dinner and missed the first half of the opening act, we could have been there when the members of BNL wandered through the audience before the show and posed for pictures with anyone who wanted one.

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