by Pete Hemming
As children, we long to fight aliens, bring the outlaw to justice, or hit that home run and win the World Series. As time passes, adult thoughts of responsibility displace childhood dreams. Yet, sometimes a child’s fantasy morphs into reality.
Austin Visschedyk has lived that fantasy. Stirred by the glitz of Hollywood, Austin, at the age of 12, became LA’s youngest paparazzo. Accompanying his mother to a fashionable salon in Beverly Hills, starlet Paris Hilton was leaving, immediately surrounded by dozens of photographers. “It looked like fun,” recalls Austin. Persuading his mother to buy him a camera, he began going out after school and on weekends to stake out various celebrity watering holes. “I would go to restaurants, hotels and salons.” Still too young to drive, the family chauffer was enlisted to ferry Austin and his camera gear around. Later, he partnered with a young adult he calls “Ben” and worked from a BMW M5.
Intelligent though not academic, Austin managed to balance work and education by finishing middle school and later high school through independent studies, earning a GED. “The best way to learn is by doing,” says Austin’s mother Jane, a former teacher who stresses that her son always worked near home, was never alone, and regularly checked in using his cell phone.
Earning the respect from his peers was tough. “Being underage was the biggest advantage to that business. I could run into a restaurant or hotel and get away with it. They couldn’t stop me and other photographers hated me for it,” Austin says, who admits he was an “obnoxious kid.” But his talent for getting the shot could not be contested. Austin‘s images, from Jennifer Aniston to Al Pacino, appeared in celebrity magazines. “Once, one of Lindsay Lohan’s bodyguards smacked me.” Austin put his camera away and “dared him to do it again.” With 15 other photographers watching, the man backed down. That moment earned Austin respect. “It’s a big kind of family, everybody backs you up,” says Austin regarding his colleagues. “But when a celebrity walks out, it’s every man for himself.”
Celebrity magazines care about one thing, getting the shot. “A partner is a great advantage because you can cover two doors or drive while the other one shoots,” says Austin. “I had cameras mounted on remote controlled helicopters, RC race cars, and long booms so I could get above restaurant walls.” Austin spent three and a half days at L.A.’s London Hotel to get a shot of singer Chris Brown. A few dollars changed hands and a key card got Austin everywhere in the hotel. Austin estimates he spent over $20,000 in bribes to valet, hotel, and restaurant employees. The long waits in the heat, cold, rain and the occasional smack down paid off. Austin estimates in his best years he made $100,000. A single photograph of Lindsay Lohan could bring as much as $40,000.
For four years, a film crew followed Austin around L.A., chasing the “money shot.” That led to his own HBO special titled, Teenage Paparazzo. Produced by actor Adrian Grenier, the film included interviews with dozens of Hollywood’s biggest stars and was featured at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010.
Now 18, Austin splits his time between Carmel, where he works part time with his mother, who owns Summit Furniture, and West Hollywood. Though retired, Austin’s mind never wanders too far from clicking the shutter. “I’d love to do fashion photography and celebrity portraits,” says Austin, who has been looking for work in New York. Did he miss having a childhood? “No,” Austin says with a grin. “I was around people over 30 for five years, so it matured me a lot more. It was definitely a good thing.”