Chris Guerra was literally chasing a story that he thought might be his big break in the New Year.
The 29-year-old told a friend he thought he had spotted Justin Bieber smoking pot while driving his sports car in Los Angeles Tuesday. Guerra believed that by following the 18-year-old pop star he might be able to snap “money shot” photos that could help his career. And when Bieber’s white Ferrari was pulled over during a traffic stop, Guerra – who was following him in his car – was in the perfect place to take photos.
Guerra “was a sweet, cool guy,” a paparazzo who knew Guerra told E! News. “You would never get into any scuffle or argument with him…He never wanted to piss off anybody, was nice to all the celebrities and paps. He never had a problem with any guys. He was not your ordinary mosquito. He wasn’t a crazy pap. He would just get too excited.”
According to reports, Guerra stopped his car near the Getty Center Drive exit of the 405 Freeway to snap photos of Bieber’s car during the routine traffic stop by LAPD. He had approached the vehicle to take photos when he was asked by the highway patrolmen to return to his vehicle.
Guerra crossed the boulevard, away from Bieber’s Ferrari, around 5:50pm when he was struck by a 2007 Toyota Highlander traveling south.
He was taken to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where he passed away Tuesday evening.
“While the highway patrolman was conducting his investigation of the speeding violation of the Ferrari, he noticed a [white male] cross four lanes of traffic and was taking pictures of the traffic stop,” LAPD Sgt. Rudy Lopez told reporters at the scene of the incident Wednesday.
“He told him to get back to his vehicle, the individual refused to, he had to order him twice,” said the officer. “Eventually the individual with the camera did turn around, walked back in the direction of the vehicle, [and] in the roadway he was struck by an uninvolved vehicle.”
The tragic incident has prompted photojournalist Rolando Gomez to wonder whether Guerra was unfairly put in harm’s way because of the patrolmen’s request.
“I think that he [Guerra] didn’t have the professional ethics training or the background to know that he was within his rights to take photos at the scene,” explains Gomez, a former combat photojournalist based in San Antonio, Texas. For Gomez – who has authored numerous books on photography and teaches frequently on the subject – Guerra’s death serves to illustrate photographer’s rights and professional photographer’s code of ethics.
“You have a right to photograph someone on a public street for editorial purposes,” says Gomez, who has photographed celebrities like Morgan Freeman. “Celebrities have to understand that they are who they are because they are covered by news media. Their publicists may like to pick and choose the moments when they are seen, but when you’re news, you’re news. Celebrities should respect the rights of photographers and photographers should respect a celebrity’s rights as well.”
Celebrity photographer Lorenzo Bevilaqua agrees that Guerra – whom TMZ reports had only been working as a paparrazo for one year following a move to Los Angeles from Las Vegas – may have just been trying to do his job the only way he knew how.
“I work on an assignment and am explicitly asked to take photos,” says Bevilaqua, who is based in New York City and has photographed A-list stars such as Angelina Jolie and Anthony Hopkins. “But I can understand that in this case, the photographer was taking his chances to get the pictures he needed. This country has an obsession with celebrity and I don’t think it sounds like the photographer was necessarily doing anything wrong. It was a tragic accident.”
The 69-year-old woman who was driving the car that struck Guerra is cooperating with authorities, reports the Los Angeles Times, and most likely will not face charges.
Bieber was not driving the car at the time of the accident, which was reportedly driven by a friend.
“My thoughts and prayers are with the family of the victim,” Bieber said in a statement Wednesday. “Hopefully this tragedy will finally inspire meaningful legislation and whatever other necessary steps to protect the lives and safety of celebrities, police officers, innocent public bystanders and the photographers themselves.”
Given the 24-hour-news cycle, says Gomez, it is unlikely that Guerra’s death will be the last as photographers seek to take in-demand photos of popular celebrities. Citing Princess Diana’s death in a car crash involving paparazzi and Alec Baldwin’s assault of Daily News photographer Marcus Santos in June, Gomez believes that photographers should respect the subjects they cover while protecting themselves in turn.
“We’ll never know if this kid might have become a great photographer,” remarks Gomez.