Twilight of the paparazzo

After more than 20 years chasing stars for tabloid magazines, Daniel Cohen is tired and burned out. The business has changed, he says.

Cohen 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Cohen 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher are in Tel Aviv. They’re holed up in their room in the David Intercontinental across from the beachfront. Photographers have all the exits covered, waiting for them to emerge. It’s morning, Monday, October 11, and I am driving Daniel Cohen, elder statesman of the local paparazzi, from his home in Givat Ze’ev to the hotel.
“Look at this traffic jam. Merde,” says the 49- year-old native Parisian. “When I had my motorcycle, I would have cut through all this.”
Two years ago he had a terrible motorcycle accident. “I’d just photographed Juliette Lewis at the Western Wall and I was in a hurry to get home and send the photos to the States, and I crashed into a car and was thrown off and cars were whizzing past. I saw the face of death.
Since then I don’t ride a motorcycle.”
He’s dying for a smoke but doesn’t have a light. With traffic at a standstill, he yells out to the driver next to us, “Ahi [brother], do you have a light?” The driver tosses a cheap lighter into the car and tells Cohen to keep it. “Only in Israel!” Cohen exclaims. “I love this country.”
He gets a call from his agency in Paris, Elliot Press. “They really want this photo,” he tells me.
“Supposedly Kutcher cheated on Demi Moore and now the tabloids are reporting that they came to Israel to renew their marriage vows.”
The paparazzi surrounding the hotel exits aren’t true paparazzi, he says, referring to them as “kids.” “They all get the same photo of the celebrity surrounded by security guards, shielding his face from the camera. I don’t want that. I want the exclusive shot, the intimate shot, when the celebrity thinks he’s alone. I want to get them holding hands, walking on the beach, kissing.”
I ask if he works out of his house or an office, and Cohen pulls out a cellphone. “This is my office.”
He calls his sources – a security guard and a limousine driver who work for celebs, a couple of photographers, a couple of Internet journalists – to see if anybody knows Kutcher’s and Moore’s plans for the day. All he finds out is that Kutcher will be speaking at the Bezeq Expo at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds and that the media aren’t allowed in. So how is he going to get his exclusive? “I’ll try my luck,” an expression he uses frequently.
“Celebrities are human beings – they want to sneak away and go for a walk by themselves, they want to eat felafel. If you’re staying at a hotel across from the Tel Aviv beach, you’re going to go to the beach. Maybe while all the kids are waiting for Kutcher and chasing him around, Demi Moore will sneak away to the beach and I’ll have my exclusive.”
So we went across the street to the beach to wait for Demi Moore.
Slightly built, swarthy and sharp-featured, Cohen, married with three children, is an extreme social animal. Moving quickly in sneakers, he talks up everybody he sees, he gets in your space; he takes food from your plate and gives you food from his. Everybody is ahi to him, or motek, sweetheart. He knows a million scams. Starting out as a young man in Paris, where he made a living racing on a motorcycle to fetch photographers’ film to the tabloids, he was born for this work.
FOR A PAPARAZZO, there’s a tremendous amount of downtime – waiting hours and even days in ambush for celebs who may or may not break cover. “I get the shot about 50 percent of the time,” he says. But when he scores a juicy exclusive, the payoff to the foreign tabloids – such as France’s Voici, Britain’s Hello! and Spain’s ¡Hola! – runs into many thousands of dollars.
Working only in Israel, over the years he’s photographed Eric Clapton at poolside, wearing a red IDF paratroop beret and surrounded by young women soldiers in bikinis. “That wasn’t true paparazzi, he knew I was there, I just pretended I wasn’t a photographer,” recalls Cohen. “The army had sent some soldiers to the King David [Hotel] for the day, and I saw Clapton. I had a little camera with me, and I asked him if he would pose for a photo with my ‘girlfriend,’ and he said okay, so I called over a bunch of the girls, put a beret on his head and took the picture.”
He hangs out at the Wall and the King David, both natural places to catch celebs. He prefers, though, to rely on “precise intelligence” from sources that takes him to the right place, such as Ben-Gurion Airport or the Dead Sea, at the right time. This has led him to shots of stars such as Julio Iglesias lounging at the pool, Jeff Goldblum floating in the Dead Sea and Jason Alexander toweling off after a swim.
The local celebrity mag Pnai Plus has been running Cohen’s photos for some 20 years; the magazine Anashim and websites Mako, Walla and Ynet round out the local market for paparazzi photos. They pay a small fraction of what the foreign tabloids shell out, but it all adds up, so Cohen once caught up with president Moshe Katsav (pre-scandal) drying off after a swim at a local resort. He also had an exclusive, altogether unofficial photo of Binyamin Netanyahu on the day after his 1996 election victory.
“It was Friday afternoon and the photographers had been waiting for him outside his house in Rehavia all day, and by about 3 p.m.
they’d all gone home. I had a hunch that now was the time he’d come out, and soon a few cars and jeeps were pulling out. They headed for Sacher Park, driving through alleys, and I got my motorcycle as far as the security guards would let me. From a distance, I saw Bibi walking into the park, so I started running after him. I had my camera with the long telephoto lens, and I didn’t want anybody to think it was a gun so I was shouting, ‘I’m a photographer, I’m a photographer!’ and Shai Bazak, who was Netanyahu’s spokesman, sees me and tells the security guys to leave me alone, and I ended up with the exclusive of Netanyahu right after the election, playing soccer in the park.”
IN 2000, when George W. Bush came to the Wall a few months before his election, Cohen got there late. “He was leaving the Wall with a few security guards and I went up to him and asked if I could photograph him and his security people are saying no and they’re not stopping.
But then I told him, ‘Mr. Bush, if you let me take your picture next to the Kotel, you’ll win the election,’ and he said, ‘Let’s go,’ and he went back to the Kotel with me for photos.”
Asked which shot he was proudest of, the exclusive that required the most savvy, he cites the one of CIA director George Tenet, who came on a secret visit in the early stages of the second intifada. “I was at Jaffa Gate and I see a lot of security, I mean a lot. I follow them at a distance to the Kotel, and I couldn’t see who they were guarding; there was ring after ring of security around somebody. I saw a photographer from Shas who I knew, and I asked him to go up to them and try to take pictures of whoever they were guarding. He went up to them and they pushed him away so hard he fell down.
“Now I knew it was somebody special, so I waited a little distance away, I didn’t pull out my camera, and after awhile a man comes out of the ring of security and approaches the Kotel wearing a kippa. I waited until he finished praying and turned around so I could get his face, when he did – chook-chook-chookchook- chook,” he says, pantomiming the shot.
“After they left, I asked one of the security guys who the guy was, and he said, ‘George Tenet.’ I said, ‘Who’s that?’ And he said, ‘The head of the CIA.’ Nobody knew, he was here on a secret visit.
I sold the photo to Yediot Aharonot, but they didn’t publish it for two days – it was censored until Tenet left. The day after, it was front page.”
Asked the greatest disappointment of his career, his biggest near-miss, Cohen recalls going to Eilat in the early ’90s to photograph the lead singer of a Finnish heavy metal group who’d fallen in love with “a pretty Yemenite waitress at an Eilat hotel.”
“I wanted to get them kissing, hugging, and I’m waiting at a distance outside the hotel entrance. The singer’s waiting for her, he doesn’t see me, and when she shows up and they start kissing and hugging. I’m standing there, I have a perfect shot – and I couldn’t take it.
Then they start walking together, holding hands, hugging and kissing, and I’m following them – and I couldn’t take the picture. I have no way of understanding why, except that this was on a Shabbat and God was telling me something – he held my hands behind my back. Since then, I don’t work on Shabbat.”
AT THE BEACH across from the David Intercontinental, Cohen passes the people lying under umbrellas, looking at every face to see if it’s Demi Moore or Ashton Kutcher, or maybe someone else who’s famous. He sees a young woman lying topless on the sand. “You think?...
Nah, Demi Moore wouldn’t do that here.”
He makes more cellphone calls to sources, but they can tell him nothing except that Kutcher is giving a speech at the Bezeq Expo on new media – he’s a mega-Tweeter – and nobody except Bezeq’s handpicked photographer will be getting any shots. Meanwhile, Moore has not left the building. Cohen has little time left to wait; he has a late afternoon meeting with a publisher about a book. There are thousands of dollars to be made or not made on this assignment. So what’s his plan? “My plan is to go into a depression.”
The following morning we drive to the Kotel.
The only paparazzi shot from the previous day showed them eating dinner in a Tel Aviv restaurant, taken through the window from outside. “Big deal. I don’t want that,” says Cohen. He’s trying to figure out where they might go – they’re Kabbala enthusiasts, they’ve gone traveling through the North with Rabbi Yehuda Berg, head of the Tel Aviv Kabbalah Center. Cohen doesn’t expect them to find them at the Kotel; they’ve already been here on this trip. He just wants to try to get some leads and decide where next to hunt.
From the time we park the car in the Old City to the time we reach the Kotel, there doesn’t seem to be anybody at work who doesn’t know Daniel Cohen. He’s greeting and kissing security guards, parking attendants, Chabad rabbis and waiters at the Between the Arches restaurant, which is sort of his local HQ. He puts on tefillin at the Chabad stand, then prays at the Kotel. In between greetings and kisses, he tells everyone he’s looking for Kutcher and Moore – any ideas where they might be? None.
Back in the car, he learns that Danny Klein, owner of the Hapoel Jerusalem basketball team, is taking Kutcher around. He’s got a sports editor who knows Klein trying to raise him, but the editor says Klein isn’t answering his phone.
“They’ve got to be going to someplace religious, someplace spiritual,” he says. “I’m going to try my luck in Hebron, at the Cave of the Patriarchs.” He says it’s like Lotto – long odds, but big payoff. “If they show up in Hebron, I’ll have them to myself.”
That, at least, turns out to be a safe bet – Cohen is the only paparazzo on the scene.
There’s a crowd of soldiers and jeeps gathered and we go take a look, but all that’s happened is another routine confrontation between a settler and a Palestinian. Cohen sees Noam Arnon, spokesman of the Jewish settlement, and gives him a little patter, saying he’s looking for Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher.
“Heard anything?” he asks.
“No,” says Arnon. “So... are they getting divorced or not?” “Dunno,” says Cohen.
Heading off, Arnon says, “If they turn up in Hebron, let me know and I’ll come over.”
We’re back in stake-out mode, sitting and having coffee in front of an Arab shop. Recalling more exciting times, Cohen says he’s been beaten up on the job once. “When I was photographing Princess Caroline of Monaco outside the Dan Accadia Hotel in Herzliya. The security people were giving me trouble, telling me to move away, and I gave it back to them, I think I gave them the finger. They got out of the van and jumped me. Broke two ribs and two fingers.”
He got sued once, by actress Yael Abecassis, when he photographed her with her newborn baby on the sidewalk outside her home. “The judge’s decision was very important – he said you’re free to photograph in the public domain, such as on the street, but not in the private domain, such as the through the window into a person’s home.”
Cohen recognizes that paparazzi don’t have the best image in the world, but he says they get a bad rap. “Whatever the public pretends, we give them what they want to see. Yellow journalism is only getting more and more popular.
For all the talk about humanitarian crises and Africa and refugees, those aren’t the photos a London tabloid will pay 10,000 British pounds for, because that’s not what people will pay to see. People want to see what the celebrities wear, what they eat, who they’re screwing.”
HE HAS NO PATIENCE at all for complaints from celebs. “They want to control what the public sees of them, they want to show only their good side – well, the public makes them who they are and the public wants more. Demi Moore wants photos that will sell her movies? I want photos that will sell my newspapers.”
After more than 20 years chasing stars, though, Cohen is tired. He freely admits being burned out. “I don’t have the desire anymore,” he says.
The business has changed – now the celebs who come here are surrounded by security, and he’s in competition with kids in their 20s who don’t have families to feed, who will work for little money and hang out all night for a run-of-the-mill, unrevealing photo. “They have no tact, no imagination, all they do is swarm,” he says.
Besides himself, there are only two true, individualistic, ingenious paparazzi in the country, he says – Ro’i Haviv of Pnai Plus and Yagel Bar- Kama of La’isha, both still in their 30s.
“Internet is killing the newspapers, and the Internet sites don’t pay much at all,” he laments “A photo runs on the Web for a few hours maximum, in a newspaper it runs for a day and in a magazine for a week or a month.”
The sun is setting in Hebron. Cohen’s longshot hasn’t paid off; Kutcher and Moore seem as likely to show up here as they are in Givat Ze’ev. “I’ve had it. Let’s go,” he says.
Driving home, sitting through another traffic jam, he says, “In the old days, I would have found them. But in those days, I was alone.”
It turns out that that afternoon, Moore and Kutcher sneaked out of the David Intercontinental and went to the Kabbalah Center. Later that night they had dinner in a rooftop restaurant at the Azrieli Towers. None of the paparazzi outside the hotel managed to photograph them, says Ze’ev Michael Zoberman, spokesman for the Kabbalah Center.
“There are very simple ways of throwing paparazzi off so [celebrities] can sneak off on their own quietly. You make it look like they’re driving away in a convoy of vehicles, and the paparazzi chase them, but it’s a decoy. Ashton and Demi left the hotel in a car driven by a friend.” No, they weren't wearing disguises.
No, they did not renew their marriage vows," says Zoberman, adding that the following morning, they were driven to Ben-Gurion, boarded a plane and were gone.