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What it’s like to be a celebrity photographer at the Oscars

It’s been over a century since theater mogul Sid Grauman introduced the concept of the Hollywood red carpet at the 1922 premiere of “Robin Hood.” Ever since, the Tinseltown tradition has seen stars attend film premieres, festivals and award ceremonies bedecked in couture, debuting new looks or new relationships (or, perhaps, subtly hinting at a breakup) with photographers capturing their every move.

These behind-the-lens creatives are a crucial link between celebrity and civilian; their work serving as an arbiter of trends and beauty and aspiration in the moment, as well as visual time capsules for years to come. Photographer Chelsea Lauren has documented the red carpet scene for the photo agency Shutterstock for nearly a decade.

Every year, from January to April, Lauren shoots most of the major awards ceremonies — the Golden Globes, Emmys, Grammys, alongside other industry events like the Costume Design Guild Awards and Independent Spirit Awards. It’s a hectic time.

Billed as the celebrity event of the year, with its 900-foot-long red carpet that sweeps down Hollywood Boulevard and into the Dolby Theatre, the Oscars are on another level.

There’s a hierarchy to the arrivals — non-famous attendees take a less central route down the red carpet, while the biggest stars arrive last. But Lauren admits it can be overwhelming, even for some of the seasoned celebrities in attendance. It’s noisy — photographers vie for the attention of stars by calling out their names — and despite a sea of professional lights, camera flashes go off all around as live TV cameras roll.

“I have a lot of (actors) tell me they look for me on the carpet because it makes them feel calmer and safe,” Lauren told CNN. “It’s a lot to be screamed at like that… Sometimes, they’ll break from posing and run over to me on the carpet to give me a hug.”

Having worked the circuit for several years, Lauren says many celebrities have begun to feel comfortable in her presence — some have even become friends. She cites the likes of Paris Hilton (Lauren took her wedding photos), singer Janelle Monáe and actor and 2024 Oscar nominee Colman Domingo. “He is the most beautiful, wonderful human being in the whole world,” she said of the “Rustin” star. “I’m so proud of him and seeing him flourish this season.”

Chelsea Lauren captured this image of singer Janelle Monae at the 2022 Outfest Legacy Awards. - Courtesy Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock
Chelsea Lauren captured this image of singer Janelle Monae at the 2022 Outfest Legacy Awards. - Courtesy Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock
Chelsea Lauren photographed Paris Hilton's bachelorette and wedding. - Courtesy Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock
Chelsea Lauren photographed Paris Hilton's bachelorette and wedding. - Courtesy Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock

While the stars step out in their finery, the photographers at the Oscars have to put on a show too. It’s one of the only awards shows where there is a dress code, even for those covering the event: Long gowns for women and suits for men.

Sartorial mishaps are a major concern for celebrities in the media eye; Lauren recounts a time when one helped her create a bond with actor Daniel Kaluuya at a pre-Oscars party after someone spilt red wine on his suit. “I had a stain remover in my purse that I had just gotten that day… We spent like 20 minutes trying to get this stain out,” she recalled. When they weren’t successful, Lauren helped sneak him out of the party so the other photographers wouldn’t catch it. The next day on the Oscars red carpet, Kaluuya pointed at Lauren and yelled “You’re my G!” “It’s just the little moments like that,” she said. “I treat people like people and not like ATMs. Those result in some fun photos sometimes.”

Lauren bonded with actor Daniel Kaluuya (seen here with Timothée Chalamet at the 2018 Oscars) after someone spilt red wine on his suit at a pre Oscars party. - Courtesy Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock
Lauren bonded with actor Daniel Kaluuya (seen here with Timothée Chalamet at the 2018 Oscars) after someone spilt red wine on his suit at a pre Oscars party. - Courtesy Chelsea Lauren/Shutterstock

While undoubtedly fun, being a red carpet photographer is not all glamour. Lauren says that people don’t realize how much there is to be done at the same time — from recognizing, by name, the hundreds of celebrities who come past her lens to getting a variety of images of each person.

Every year for the Oscars, Lauren’s assignment changes. Sometimes, it’s shooting the show, executive arrivals or the afterparty. This year, she is only shooting arrivals — since she’ll be on a plane the very next morning to shoot studio portraits at South by Southwest. “Once that’s done, maybe I’ll get to sleep,” she laughed.

With a warm demeanor and talent behind the lens, Lauren is a natural celebrity photographer, but her career began as a hobby. (Growing up in the LA suburbs, Lauren also worked as a child actor herself, but now says she’s much happier as a “celebrity adjacent.”) “When I was younger, my grandparents got me a nice camera, and I used to take it everywhere,” she told CNN. Eventually, when her portfolio was strong enough, Lauren went for a job at an agency. “I brought in a big book of photos, all old-school, and plopped it down,” says Lauren. She landed the job, working for the agency for about seven years until Shutterstock hired her.

A lot has changed since Lauren first began her career. Back then, she was one of “very few” women on the red carpet — only 30 percent of the press pack she estimates, with the rest being “men who were significantly older.”

“I don’t like conflict at all,” Lauren said. “And other photographers would try to push me around or try to claim their territory and say, ‘You can’t do this. You go over here.’ Now, I’m like, ‘No, I’m good here.’ I’m gonna stand my ground. I wish I’d been a little more aggressive about that,” she said.

Now, however, the gender split is closer to 50/50 which has brought about changes at events. “I have definitely seen a shift. Certain behaviors aren’t so acceptable anymore, which is really wonderful because it became a more welcoming place for women to work,” she said. “Diversity is increasing in general, which is wonderful.”

Even though she’s been photographing the stars for over 15 years, Lauren hasn’t lost her perspective. “I’m grateful to be around the most creative, talented, artistic, beautiful human beings in the world,” she said. It’s easy to forget when you’re in the midst of working, but if you take a step back from yourself, it’s like, ‘wow, I have a dream job.’ It’s really special.”

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