George Pimentel, Photographer

Ever Wonder What Life is Like Working the Red Carpet?

Ever wondered what life is like for photographers working the Red Carpet?

Celebrity photographer George Pimentel is one of Canada’s busiest photographers who make a living taking photos of the rich and famous. He put his camera down for a few minutes to give us the inside scoop on shooting some of the biggest names in Hollywood.

You're a third generation photographer whose father and grandfather took portraits and did wedding photography.  What inspired you to move beyond that and become a celebrity photographer?

At age 20, after working with my father since age 9, I realized that there was more to life than the family business, besides, I had always wanted to document how other people lived through photography.

While studying Photo Arts at Ryerson I was inspired by my peers to think about other, more creative possibilities in the field beyond weddings.

Then, when I was 20 yrs. old, I went to TIFF to see if I could get a glimpse my idol Robert DeNiro.  I serendipitously got the shot as I was taken for a member of the media and ushered to their designated area - it gave me a rush and that’s when I decided my future was on the red carpets.

How does one get into celebrity photography?

When I took that first photo of DeNiro, I was “stung”.  I developed a portfolio of celebrity shots that I captured by finding out myself where and when they were going to be – I even went so far as flying to L.A. on more than one occasion!  I selected celebs that I was a fan of and admired.  It took me 3 or 4 years to amass my collection until I thought it was good enough to send to Flare Magazine.  They bought my work!  To this day I remember my first sale of a set of Black &White photographs I took at TIFF.

Some people still refer to you as paparazzi.  Is that an accurate name for what you do?

I don’t mind the name – it’s just a label people use and that I mostly laugh at.

While I was building my career I guess I was more of what you might call a paparazzi meaning I wasn’t necessarily credentialed to be at the parties and on the red carpets. 

I never was, never have been and never will be the type of photographer to stalk celebrities, follow them around or hide in bushes to get their photo.  That’s a REAL paparazzi!  My jobs are always by invitation and I am properly credentialed, meaning that the organizers know full well who I am, who I work for and where I’ll be stationed on the red carpet.   Exactly the same way the reporters do it.

You've worked on red carpets around the world, which event is your favourite to cover and why?

As the event closest to my heart and home, I love TIFF.  Being a hometown favourite and having developed great relationships with the organizers over the years, I get unprecedented access to all the events and red carpet appearances.  I am privileged to be the “official TIFF photographer” – whereas other have to stay behind stanchions, I have carte blanche to roam where I please, attend VIP parties and I even help the event organizers with venue set-up and determining placement for other media members.

The Cannes Film Festival on the French Riviera ain’t so bad either (chuckles).

Who are your favourite people to photograph?  Your least favourite?

I love celebrities who know how to make my job easier and understand the business.  Brad and Angelina are always a sure shot – they roam the carpet making sure to look directly at everyone while giving different angles and poses.  Mariah Carey knows her best side and will only look at the camera when posing toward it.  She also isn’t shy to have her groomers on the carpet with her to make sure she always looks fantastic in every shot, which may sound a little conceited but considering that we need great shots to sell them, it makes our lives easier (not to mention avoids any wardrobe ‘malfunctions’)

I love shooting celebs who love the camera: Paris Hilton (never says no to a photo) J. Lo, Jennifer Aniston, Tom Cruise (nicest guy in Hollywood – any photographer will tell you that) and John Travolta are only a few.

Worst celebrities are the ones who have no interest in being on the red carpet – they make my job challenging.   They rush through their photo ops and are visibly unhappy or uncomfortable being there.  Sean Penn is notorious for not liking the camera (he always seems to have a cigarette in his mouth, which is what we always try to avoid); Nicole Kidman (is very moody, and you never know what to expect with her), Justin Timberlake, Sandra Bullock (she never stops talking and doesn’t look at the cameras), Avril Lavigne and Rene Zellwegger (always seems to have a funny expression on her face) are a few.

The best part of the job though is when you get to meet a celebrity that you idolize and they turn out to be down-to-earth and treat you with respect.

In your opinion, what makes a great photo?  How do your pictures differ from other celebrity photographers?

When I’m on the red carpet it’s a combination of things.  You need elements of glamour, great expression, great lighting and sharp images to start.

Celebs have to look fantastic and have good eye contact with the camera.  There has to be a sense of interaction between the subject and the photographer.  It can be challenging when you have a mob of photographers all trying to accomplish the same thing at the same time and I imagine that it can be overwhelming at times for the celebrities too.  In the end though, we’re all professionals and know what our jobs are. 

It’s also about patience and good relationships – these are the factors that contribute to getting a good spot on the carpet which is paramount to getting a great shot.  Over the years I’ve learned to forge relationships with the right people (event organizers and publicists) which definitely gives me an edge.  I am also at the point in my career where celebrities know me and will work with me a little more on the carpet.

Artistically, I can honestly say that either you’re born with it or you're not.  It’s having a sensibility for knowing what works, what doesn’t and what makes an enrapturing photo.  I’ve been blessed with this ‘feeling’ for photography where I can gauge colours, light and composition to create great shots.

Beyond that first shot of Robert DeNiro, which photo do you hold dearest to you?

By the way, 10 years later, I gave DeNiro that first shot I took of him and he loved it!  I got the chance to have a photo taken with him there on the red carpet.

The times I photographed Ray Charles and Heath Ledger just before they passed away will stay with me forever.  The one regret I have is not having had the opportunity to photograph Michael Jackson – he rarely attended any celebrity events.

You've been shooting celebrities for over 15 years now - what has changed the industry most in those years?

With the advances in photography technology and accessibility to equipment, anyone can claim to be a photographer.  There are many more paparazzi and fans taking photos of celebrities everywhere and at any time, making it more and more difficult for them to get privacy.

The general public are now “citizen photographers”, snapping shots of celebs with their digital cameras and cell phones, catching some valuable stuff on camera, some not so much.

More recently, when Perez Hilton got into an altercation with Will I Am at the MMVAs, a lucky fan who caught it on camera sold the picture for up to $15,000.

There are also instances of celebrities taking their own photos and selling them to the media.  Brad and Angelina sold the first ever photos of their twins for $6 million and donated the proceeds to charity.

All this combined makes it more and more challenging for accredited photographers to get that “million dollar shot”.

You're a bit of a romantic when it comes to using vintage cameras like your dad's 1970s Hasselblad and black and white film.  How do you feel about the omnipresence of digital cameras?

I love it!  If digital cameras were around in the 50s, they would have been used as much back then.  We’re in the digital age and we all have to evolve with the times!

Cameras are much faster, lighter and more advanced - I can take, upload and send photos to the four corners of the world within minutes.  It’s amazing!

Beyond my professional work though, I love being able to have my pocket-sized Fuji F200EXR wherever I go to snap shots of my kids, friends and family.  There’s no way I’m going to lug my enormous equipment to a backyard barbecue!

The best part of photography is when I feel completely free and I don’t have to fumble with a camera.  I can point and shoot, and still get great results.  They’ve gotta be top notch even when I’m shooting with my compact Fuji.  I have standards you know! (laughs).

What’s more amazing though is how accessible it has made photography to the general public.  Besides the amateur paparazzi stealing my jobs (laughs!), I think it’s great that everyone has the potential to record memories and explore their own creativity.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

On a beach playing dominos with a gold tooth (laughs).

I read that you had a project to create a book of your life’s work?

Of course! That comes before the beach.