Earlier this month, Cathriona White’s funeral was held in Co Tiperary, Ireland. Pall bearers carried her coffin into the ceremony, through the crowd of her loved ones. Reading this, you might be wondering who I’m talking about, and why I know what her funeral looked like. The reason is that Cathriona White was, to quote a press-favourite phrase, the “on-off girlfriend” of actor Jim Carrey. Because of several published photos, I know that he was one of the pall bearers. You might stop me again there and ask, as I have asked myself, why does anyone need to see photographs of a grieving man, at the funeral of a non-famous woman? In all honesty, to me there seems no logical justification for this.
In a world in which we are photographed thousands of times a day, and can edit, filter and post images of ourselves online within seconds of capturing our daily lives, many questions arise as to whether privacy is overrated and outdated. When celebrities are pulled into the discussion, opinions often become warped; having chosen careers in the public eye, many see being “papped” as an inevitable side effect of success. The idea that a high-profile job means you owe it to the public to allow your private life to be held to constant scrutiny has become increasingly contentious, as technological advances now permit the instantaneous diffusion of images.
Even pre-selfie, pre-Twitter, the problem was rife. Looking back to 2007, we all remember Britney Spears lashing out at a photographer, following the now infamous incident in which she shaved her hair. Yes, other factors affected the way Britney behaved, but documenting her every move, labelling it a “meltdown” and posting a comic-strip of these events can only have made her life even more difficult.
It is important to realise that buying the newspapers that print these images, or even by clicking on their links, you become complicit. I suspect it was the director’s aim to highlight this when producing Amy, the documentary film that tracked Amy Winehouse’s life from pre-fame until her untimely death in 2010. Watching it, I felt guilty. During her life, I had been part of a greedy public, poring over unflattering images. Had anyone stepped back and thought about it with any compassion, it would have been clear that Winehouse was, (and I am aware of how much of an understatement this is), deeply unhappy to be followed incessantly by the press.
Disapproval of the relentless photographing of public figures was made clear in black and white this year when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge sent an open letter to the press, imploring them to stop taking covert photographs of their infant children. While it may be argued that the very nature of royalty, of private made public, should allow the public to see their lives played out in full, I agree with them. If it were any “normal” family, hiding in sand dunes to photograph a two-year-old would be considered sinister at best. Does the fact that this particular child will one day become King mean that until that day, everything he does is public property?
At this point, we might question just how unavoidable press attention actually is. Beside the intrusive press photos, we see very few images in the media of the royals going about their daily lives. Though perhaps an isolated case in that their position had afforded them a general level of respect in the media, do they serve as an example of it not actually being that difficult to maintain a private life? Lady Gaga, interviewed in 2010 for The Times by Caitlin Moran, argued this point, stating, “If you put as much money into your security as you put into your cars or your diamonds or your jewellery, you can just… disappear. People who say they can’t get away are lying. They must just like the… big flashes.” In this case, are some celebrities doing little to keep their lives private, thereby fueling their own fires?
In the wake of last year’s photo leak scandal, which saw the hacking and public distribution of intimate images of celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence, gender inequality can be brought into the debate. As many commented at the time, misogynistic attitudes towards the public consumption of women’s bodies were widely condemned when the photos of Lawrence, and indeed many other famous women, were stolen and leaked. However, when that photo of Justin Bieber appeared earlier this month, condemnation for whoever took and distributed it seemed to take a back seat to analysis of the image itself.
Even Bieber’s Dad made light of it. Some of those who took to Twitter to object to the image cited a gendered double standard, questioning why everyone had sympathised with Jennifer Lawrence, but laughed at Justin Bieber. While important, this argument seems irrelevant if we just accept the idea that you have no right to see intimate photos of anyone without their permission. Both are wrong on the fundamental level that if you choose to be naked (or otherwise) somewhere private, or then choose to take photos of yourself, no one else has any claim to those images.
Debating the private lives of celebrities and those close to them, as in the case of Cathriona White, in some respects boils down to how much the press should be allowed to get away with. As the examples of the Cambridges and victims of leaked photos prove, even going to great lengths to try and stay away from the flashbulbs isn’t always enough to live in peace and privacy. It is unlikely that celebrity photographers will let up any time soon in their pursuit of an exclusive shot if they’re not actually breaking any laws, nor is it perhaps realistic for all famous people to maintain a low profile at all times as Lady Gaga suggests. In that case, it falls to sympathetic consumers to reject these images and weaken their worth. Avoiding click-bait, not buying sensationalist publications and choosing not to keep sharing these images online, may be the only realistic solution.