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Paparazzo Par Excellence: Meet The Man Who Exposed Francois Hollande

Sebastien Valiela, who caught the French leader sneaking to see his mistress, is among the world's best paparazzi. He'd already exposed the deepest secret of another French President.

Zooming in
Zooming in
Michel Guerrin

PARIS — In a Parisian café a year ago, over croissants, 42-year-old Sébastien Valiela told us about his achievements as a paparazzo. He wasn’t boastful, but after two coffees, he said, “If someone manages to photograph François Hollande and Julie Gayet together, it will be a huge coup. But who would dare to publish it?”

Twelve months later, he pulled off this “huge coup” when the French tabloid Closer, which specializes in salacious stories, published the now-infamous Jan. 10 story and accompanying photos about President Hollande’s affair with the French actress. The images show two men, one of them Hollande, arriving on a scooter to meet Gayet. Then, a blond woman enters the building.

When we remind Valiela of his earlier prophecy, he laughs about it. “Yes, I already knew,” he says. “Paparazzi had been talking about it for a while. The thing was to discover their meeting place. We trailed a security agent working for Julie Gayet, and we found it.” Some say former President Nicolas Sarkozy tipped off tabloids about their love nest. “Nonsense,” the photographer says of the rumor.

Valiela shot the series of photographs by “staking out” the chic building of rue du Cirque, not far from the Elysée, where the couple met on the fourth floor with the blinds closed. He began Dec. 26 with fellow photographer Lorenzo Viers, and the photos ultimately published were taken just before and after New Year’s.

One of the two men stationed himself discreetly in the street, while the other hid behind a window on the staircase of the opposite building. "Two of us allows better shooting angles and increases the chances of succeeding,” Valiela says.

A lone wolf

When we met Valiela for the first time, it was to prepare text for the catalogue of the “Paparazzi!” exhibition, which opens Feb. 26 at the Centre Pompidou-Metz. His work is well represented in the exhibition.

“He’s the best,” says Frédéric Hervé, of the photo agency Bestimage. “Sébastien is the last pure paparazzo, one of the few to do only that. He’s a lone wolf, but his address book is astonishing. He has connections, uses social networks extremely well and works his subjects far from the swarm of paparazzi.”

He earned his reputation with a photograph shot 20 years ago that had the same troubling echoes as the Hollande-Gayet photos. Same impact, same way of revealing a secret part of the head of state’s private life.

In a 1994 photograph published in Paris Match, Valiela revealed the “secret” daughter of President François Mitterrand, Mazarine Pingeot. In the color photo, a 77-year-old Mitterrand puts his hand on the shoulder of his 19-year-old daughter as they leave the starred Paris restaurant Le Divellec. Valiela was working with his colleague Pierre Suu, both of them young shooters for the Sphinx agency, belonging to Bruno Mouron and Pascal Rostain, two important paparazzi figures.

“We were the basically same age as Mazarine. We knew one of her friends from school,” Valiela explains.

Finding the right angle was tricky, he recalls. Located 100 meters from the restaurant, with his back to Mazarine and without being noticed by the 15 bodyguards fluttering around, Valiela had Suu lie on the pavement. He then directed the huge 500-millimeter lens between his partner’s legs and took the shot. “Hollande’s photo was much easier to take, seeing how little protection he had.”

A major impact

His pictures have shaken up the lives of two French socialist presidents, which makes him smile, though it has nothing to do with their politics. It seems Valiela was born to be a paparazzo. At just eight years old, he was fascinated by the “forbidden, rough, mysterious pictures” he discovered in his parents’ copies of Paris Match.

Is it a coincidence that he was born in La Baule, a chic coastal resort where celebrities spend their summers? He started taking photos of people in compromising situations at 16, while he was still in high school, to spice up his job as a bartender.

Valiela soon became the symbol of a new generation of French paparazzi that helped nurture the success of the tabloid Voici. Founded by the German Axel Ganz (Prisma group), it was the first French monthly magazine to specialize in publishing work from “cheeky paparazzi.”

The magazine’s sales soon reached 800,000 copies. Valiela covered news presenters Patrick Poivre d’Arvor and Claire Chazal, actors Gérard Depardieu and Carole Bouquet, Pierre Arditi and Jane Birkin, and “very often” singer Patrick Bruel. “We talked about romantic affairs, separations, pregnant actresses, babies,” he says. “Every week, public personalities, journalists, models, reality-TV candidates wondered what was going to be said about them.”

It was heavy, hurtful sometimes, and there were a fair number of lawsuits. But the readers wanted more.

The Paris Hilton years

Valiela eventually became an independent paparazzo, and lived in Los Angeles from 2004 to 2008. He discovered that work in the U.S. was easy money because, unlike in France, any photograph taken in a public place is legal there. So photographers didn’t have to play hide and seek.

It was a time when improbable and shameless personalities such as Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie and Kim Kardashian, among others, flaunted themselves on Malibu beaches or at the vegetable market, allowing any paparazzo to earn “$20,000 in one weekend,” Valiela recalls.

When he returned to Paris in 2008, the paparazzi market was collapsing. The economic crisis was in full bloom, and so was the Internet. Photographs flooded websites, blogs and social networks. Valiela saw photos that used to be worth 350 euros selling for 30, celebrities losing in aura what they were gaining in indulgence, and actresses posting their effigies on Instagram.

He saw French actor Daniel Auteuil “assaulting a tourist brandishing his cellphone, convinced he was a paparazzi,” and 20 colleagues “standing around outside a hotel, waiting for David Beckham to leave.”

Valiela decided he would specialize in the rare and expensive exclusive. “Digging up information, hunting down a story, catching Ernst of Hanover in Thailand kissing a girl who is not his wife. It’s not accessible to everyone. There’s only a dozen of us in the world maintaining this position.” To do this, he founded his own agency, Eyewitness, in 2008.

Photographer to the stars Daniel Angeli, 70, is no soft-hearted person but doesn’t find any nobility in the work of Valiela. “The job has nothing to do with today’s clowns, staking out day and night,” Angeli says. “It’s not journalism anymore. It’s proving people guilty of adultery.”

But Valiela rejects the criticisms. He concedes that his pictures have led to a number of lawsuits and that he has been less that straightforward in many situations. He has pretended to be a firefighter in a city hall. But expect no remorse from him. Especially not for the photos of a helmeted François Hollande.

“I’m proud,” Valiela says. “It’s neither rumor nor manipulation. It’s verified facts. I don’t see why public figures should be in newspapers only when they want to promote their careers. When you’re president, you have a function to protect. There were so many photographers on this case that it was bound to come out one day.”

The fact that Closer published the pictures of François Hollande and Julie Gayet is no surprise. This is the same monthly tabloid that published a 2012 photo of Prince William’s wife Kate topless on a property in southern France. A criminal complaint for “invasion of privacy” by the British Crown is currently under investigation.

But most importantly, Closer generalized political paparazzi in France. “The turning point was during the summer of 2006, when we published on our cover Ségolène Royal in a swimsuit, just before she was nominated as a presidential candidate for the socialist party,” Closer editor-in-chief Laurence Pieau explains.

The following year, Closer published a photo of François Hollande with his new partner, Valérie Trierweiler, on a Moroccan beach. Here is he is now, with Julie Gayet, allowing Closer to double its sales — up to 600,000 copies. Valiela earned 40,000 euros for his exposé, according to the website Presse News.

“Nonsense,” the photographer responds, though admitting his report “would sell anywhere in the world.” Which goes a long way in maintaining a reputation.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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