On a recent afternoon, photographer Jae Donnelly waits outside a Chelsea apartment building. The block is busy with buses screeching by and a steady flow of foot traffic into a Whole Foods on the corner, but for Donnelly, it's been a slow day. He stands alone, his eyes trained on a door. This is where Katie Holmes lives.
Ever since news of Katie's divorce from Tom Cruise this past summer, the cash cow for New York paparazzi are shots of the star with her six-year-old daughter, Suri. A half dozen photographers regularly camp outside their home, and today Donnelly has been waiting for more than three hours.
"A lot of what I do is waiting and staring and waiting and staring," the 38-year-old Brit said. "Most people would think I'm wasting my life away, but that's what I do to get a picture."
And it's not just about getting a picture. It's about getting the right picture. The best photos are candid shots of celebrities. Clear shots of faces. Think Us Weekly's Just Like Us section. For this reason, Donnelly tries to go undetected.
"The kind of stuff that I do, you won't even know that I'm there," he explained. "What I try to do is blend in with the surroundings. I could be anywhere: in bushes, in trees, in someone else's apartment...shooting out of their window." Donnelly recently paid a stranger "a couple grand" to shoot out of his window.
A press photographer by training, Donnelly worked for the big national papers in the U.K. before an agency recruited him to shoot celebrities in America. That was 6 years ago. Since then, he’s become an industry insider: He has landed exclusive shots of Jennifer Aniston sunbathing with John Mayer, Prince Andrew mingling with a registered sex offender, P. Diddy stepping on dog poop.
Sometimes, he daydreams about quitting the business but the money is just too good. An exclusive set of photos—the kind that breaks a story — has earned him as much as $60,000 dollars.
"I really have the most ridiculous job on earth," Donnelly said. "I can get some pictures of a reality-TV person crying, and it makes more money than my poor dad, who was a builder, slugged his guts out.... I just go click-click and earn a silly amount of money. It's bonkers."