Paparazzi as Panopticon

The modern art of celebrity-watching depends on the ability of camera-wielding paparazzi to document every public moment of a person’s life, from the mundane (candid shots of grocery shopping sans make-up) to the extravagant (lucrative helicopter shots of wedding ceremonies). This is a mode of surveillance that resembles the invisible power held by Jeremy Bentham’s model of the panopticon – which Foucault described as a “mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form” (1977). The panopticon was designed in such a way that the subject under surveillance would engage in self-regulation because they were aware of potentially being watched by figures of authority from every angle.

Once an individual has been elevated to the status of a ‘celebrity’, they are subject to an intense gaze of public scrutiny. Over time, images and footage of their everyday activities accumulate, and inevitably means that certain private moments often become a well-known part of their public image. This can have damaging effects on the reputation of an individual who has usually worked quite hard to build up a favourable image.

Surveillance footage of Lohan (Google images).

The media coverage of Lindsay Lohan’s most recent prison incarceration and stint in rehab – part of a seemingly never-ending cycle of unsuccessful professional ventures, personal dramas, and eventual arrests before her apparent recovery and attempts at a comeback – is indicative of the insatiable desire to monitor the train wreck in which some famous individuals become engaged.

The relationship between Lohan and the camera is a symbiotic one. She first tasted the spotlight as a child model, before being bestowed with the label of the ‘next big thing’ following a lead role in the intelligent comedy ‘Mean Girls’, about the trials and tribulations of navigating high school as an animal kingdom of hierarchies and survival tactics.

Lindsay Lohan at a recent court appearance (TMZ).

After a well-documented descent into drug addiction, eating disorder and questionable life decisions, Lohan seemed to become addicted to the spotlight that both sustains her and perhaps destroy her. To qualify this, I would argue that it is a form of sustenance because her main source of income seems to now be derived from photo shoots. It is a destroying force because the awareness of being under constant scrutiny has a potentially negative impact on one’s behaviour.

In the case of Lohan, the power of the gaze is an aspect of celebrity which has a tangible effect on the ability of an individual to maintain a sense of stability in the face of never-ending public scrutiny.

Further Reading:

Foucault, Michel. (1977) ‘Panopticism’, in D.M. Kaplan (ed.), Readings in the philosophy of technology. (2004) Rowman & Littlefield Publishers: Lanham, Md, pp. 359-372.

Behind the scenes at a photo shoot – fascinating insight into the process of creating images of Lohan and the high stakes for those involved.

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