At about 4:15 on a Friday afternoon, well before the arrival of any meaningful celebrities, I came to a new conclusion about my profession. The "Working Press Photographers," as we're sometimes charitably called, leaned against a steel barricade at the Independent Spirit Awards in two cluttered rows. Next to me, a woman of some vague European origin who would later shout at the foreign independent filmmakers in German, Spanish and French, turned to me with the same conclusion: "We are fucking freaks," she said.
Behind the barricade, we were a split-level freak show on display for a small list of well-dressed clientele who strolled along a powder blue carpet and gazed at the oddities. There was the Ferrari Guy, who distilled the mid-life crisis down to its essence with his bald head and soul patch. He wore a Corsa red Ferrari jacket and covered his three Nikon cameras with matching red electrical tape. There was Kathy, obese and well-past middle age, with a voice as loud as a carnival barker, who between 3:00 and 4:15 managed to switch her assigned spot four times and break a colleague's stool under her weight. There was an older man, a Jeffrey Tambour look-alike, who told, and re-told, the same joke for four hours—variations on a theme of "I need a whiskey."
The broken stool belonged to this last photog, Jeffrey Tambour, and just before 4:15, he and Kathy began a shouting match through a crowd of a dozen photographers about whether or not, in fact, Kathy had engaged a locking clasp on the now-useless stool. Kathy's position in the debate was that she didn't give a fuck and that the stool was a piece of shit anyways and that Jeffrey Tambour shouldn't have lent it out in the first place.
So, at 4:15, the revelation: We were freaks. Fucking freaks. That much is obvious to anyone who has caught an episode of TMZ. Dressed in a black suit and tie, I realized I had become one of them, another oddity, the Amazingly Well-Dressed Kid. I had gone from part- to full-time. I wanted a whiskey, too.
This was high season among the freaks. The Oscars were two nights away and with them the promise of the pre- and after-parties that made awards season so profitable. The chatter behind my assigned spot circled around the Vanity Fair wrap party—who had gotten in, who didn't. General consensus among those left off the list of 40 photographers allowed inside was that Vanity Fair was too late and too much work and they'd rather be at home, in bed, sleeping. They were jealous. I was, too.
Forty-five minutes remained until the first of the celebrities hit the carpet. The punctual ones were never very lucrative; tabloid magazines were uninterested in celebs with open schedules. To my right, a New York-based paparazzo was cropping the real thing, photos of Halle Berry and her young child playing in a sunlit park. The European woman told me a story about tackling 400 lb. Armenian taxi driver after he snuck into an awards show and tried to steal her camera.
I hoped that all of us were nervous in those long moments of tedium before the moments of terror were to come. Indeed, this was the closest to combat that LA had seen in a decade, and soon there was to be a beach landing with publicists dragging their non-combatant celebrity clients wounded and smiling down 200 yards of trenches to be shot repeatedly by the photogs now waiting crouched behind their barricade. You had to be nervous at a time like that.
At 5:00, the limos unloaded their celebrity cargo. Soon, it was impossible to hear over the yelling of my fellow celebrity journalists.
I saw Laura Dern, Amy Ryan, Ethan Hawke, Vera Farmiga, Ed Helms, Robert Duvall, Andy Garcia, David Spade, Mariah Carey, Matt Dillon, Mo'nique, Maggie Gyllenhaal, John Waters, Helen Mirren, Jeff Bridges, and Colin Firth walk between a steady stream of no-names who we photographed just the same in hopes they someday acquired names of their own.
The whole process is more than just a bit inhumane. We are baseball collectors in search of a mint-condition rookie season card, an object to sell and trade for profit. We were no more photographers than they were our subjects. And the more we shouted instructions, the better we could feel; the more we thought that the freaks were actually on the other side of the barricade.
It was so impersonal that I didn't know what to say afterwards. Could I claim to have "seen" Dave Grohl with the stars of my favorite film of '09, the Canadian metal band Anvil? Tom Ford stood five feet from me, methodically looking down all of our camera barrels one-by-one, giving the same practiced look to every photog. But I couldn't say that he "saw" me (or my suit).
And then, jolting me from my self-pity, a photog a few spots over said, "Oh, my god. That's Roger Ebert." I'd watched the same elderly man, walking down the carpet with his wife in tow, pointing at random photographers as if he recognized them. From 30 yards out, I could see that he was disfigured by some unfortunate combination of cancer and surgery. But it wasn't until the man with the permanent grin stopped and held one thumb way up that it hit me—this was Roger Ebert, a man who inarguably influenced cinema far more than any of the other attendees at the awards ceremony. Even the seasoned pros near me lowered their cameras. Nobody shouted. He maneuvered past us, thumb still up, politely refusing to pose.