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The paparazzi games

In a world obsessed with the cult of the celebrity, where entertainment is news, the constant eye of the paparazzo feeds an insatiable public a diet of celebrity freaks.

Funhouse the photodrama was born out of a trip to Paris last year. Fred Koenig took me on a drive through the Pont de l’Alma one evening and as a laugh we imagined we were Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed screaming to our end, fleeing from the paparazzi and trying to shake them on our way to an appointment with death.

Subtitled A Mass Media Freakshow and comprising the installations Paparazzi Wish List and Paparazzi House of Horrors, these artworks will be presented at Newtown’s Bag Factory next weekend.

The Paris experience evokes memories of 1997 as a photojournalism student at Rhodes University and the shame I felt that this was the career I was pursuing. Realising there were levels to which I would not stoop, I focused on telling people’s stories and got a job at the Mail & Guardian. It had a social-political awareness that closely matched what I wanted to do as a photojournalist.

Newspapers like this one struggle in a market where entertainment is news, and ”celebrity is king”. Less space is allocated to meaningful news and the information hunter-gatherers and insightful commentators are subsumed by an entertainment imperative that takes itself very seriously.

The media can make and break those who are considered celebrities or public figures. With their coverage they can turn a cultural icon into a freak with choice words and — thanks to the paparazzi — some candid snapshots. Gossip and scandal can be freely reported without being substantiated in the tabloids, breaking one of the basic tenets of journalism ethics because the unnamed source is sacrosanct.

But even at the M&G there were times when I had to be part of the wolf pack of photographers, pushing and shoving for a picture at a press conference, a news event or a riot.

I even eagerly took a News of the World assignment one Saturday morning to get pictures of Alex Ferguson after he was accused of molesting a Cape Town woman. I earned more than I have ever earned in one day — R10 000 — for pictures they didn’t even publish.

Since leaving the M&G I have been working as an artist and collaborating with artists. I ”retired” from full-time photojournalism and Funhouse is my biggest departure from that world. I received an artist residency from the Bag Factory and with its funding — the Ford Foundation, the French Institute and Cultures France — have been able to pursue this project. I have collaborated with several types of artists such as performer Koenig, Toni Morkel and Anthea Moys, with whom I have formed working relationships and friendships.

As a performer, Koenig is inspired by Kazuo Ono, a founder of butoh. Butoh dance is a performing art that originated in post-World War II Japan. Butoh performers asked the question: ”After Hiroshima, how can we ever dance again?”

Ono is known for his homage to La Argentina, a flamenco dancer from the early 20th century. He claims she visited him in dreams and requested him to resurrect her in his dance. In Funhouse Koenig will resurrect Princess Diana.

Morkel, South Africa’s top performance artists and Moys play a twin-headed ringmaster. Camp filmmaker Stanimir Stoykov and actor Brian Webber record the trials and tribulations of Britney Spears and present their Dumpster Diving Booty Loot. Other performers include Robert Colman, Outcast clowns Mika Stefano and Rat Western, Francois Venter, Bronwyn Lace, Stompie Selebi and Fanito.

As I expected, by concentrating on this genre of performance, Funhouse has brought an element of play to my work.

The Funhouse Mass Media Freak Show takes place at the Bag Factory on Mahlatini Street in Fordsburg on October 31 and November 1 at 7.30pm and on November 2 at 11am. Tel: 011 834 9181

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