It Makes Us Feel Like We’re A Part Of Something.
by Bec Hawkings
“Why are you contributing to this thing that you don’t think is very good?”
“I fucked up.”
A chance encounter with 14 year old paparazzi prodigy Austin Visschedyk was the inspiration for Adrian Grenier’s 2010 documentary Teenage Paparazzo. Grenier, the film reveals, was Visschedyk’s first ever paparazzi-style photo; meanwhile, seeing the young boy snapping away amongst a seasoned and frantic paparazzi pool prompted Grenier to delve into the world of celebrity photography, and the industry that drives it. The documentary itself is beautifully constructed and presented. Intersecting the story of Grenier and Visschedyk’s relationship are broader socio-cultural theories of celebrity and the media, with insights from professors of humanities and celebrities alike. The celebrities in this documentary provide startlingly profound musings on the antagonistic relationship between fame and paparazzi; even Paris Hilton, not normally known for her analytical stylings, questions the type of culture that would allow a fourteen year old boy to be working in such a fierce and demanding industry, and similarly, the type of mother that would allow her son to be doing so at 3am every night. When you find yourself agreeing with Paris Hilton, you become starkly aware of the strange nature of Visschedyk’s entire world.
Visschedyk’s mother Jane is a complex character in Grenier’s documentary. Permissive of his lifestyle, Jane seems almost to parent laissez-faire, and at points you feel that she needs to be reminded that her son is not yet an adult. Her narrative redemption comes towards the end of the film, as Grenier sits down with Visschedyk and his mother to watch the documentary. Jane’s reaction to seeing her permissiveness on-screen is encouraging; far from excusing her son’s (and her own) behaviour, Jane questions her role as his parent. Though we do not see if these questions manifest into real-world changes, her reaction is nonetheless powerful.
For Visschedyk, there is redemption at the very conclusion of the film (a great relief to the viewer, who could be forgiven for wanting to slap the young paparazzo numerous times throughout the documentary.) A year after filming, Grenier visits a licence-wielding and post-pubescent Visschedyk; it quickly becomes clear that his deeper voice and taller visage are not the only changes that a year has rendered on this young man. Far from desiring fame of his own, Visschedyk now delineates between his work as a paparazzo and his personal life. The exploitation of what his job entails no longer sits so comfortably with Visschedyk, and he notes to Grenier that there is a difference between photographing celebrities and the more morally questionable work of the paparazzi.
It is Grenier, however, who shines as the real star of this documentary. His transformation is just as profound as that of Jane and Visschedyk: beginning as a celebrity who wants to turn the cameras on to those that usually wield them, the end of the film sees Grenier desiring nothing more than to be a friend to Visschedyk. The underpinning motivation for the film similarly morphs as the cameras roll, with Grenier despairing at what he sees to be a waste of Visschedyk’s extraordinary talent for photography. Numerous attempts to influence Visschedyk go unheaded by the young paparazzo. Upon showing him the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph of the Kent State shootings, for example, Grenier is incredulous when Visschedyk declares the photo as ‘not dramatic enough.’ It is Grenier’s documentary, in the end, that appears to change Visschedyk; it seems that exploiting him as he exploits celebrities gave the paparazzo a moment of pause, however delayed. In this, Grenier achieved his primary goal, and with it produced a fascinating piece of film.
“There’s a point where we have to turn off the cameras, and not just use each other, and not just exploit each other.”