Business Monday

Celebrity photographers put a lens on Miami’s social scene

Miami photographer and World Red Eye photo company CEO Seth Browarnik works his mobile phones from Juvia Restaurant on Miami Beach.
Miami photographer and World Red Eye photo company CEO Seth Browarnik works his mobile phones from Juvia Restaurant on Miami Beach. pfarrell@miamiherald.com

In October, Seth Browarnik stood on a stage at the

Pérez Art Museum Miami and introduced a panel of nightlife impresarios he knows from a better vantage point: behind a camera.

“There are two things I know best: photography and partying,” said Browarnik, a longtime photographer and owner of multimedia company World Red Eye. “I owe everything to nightlife.”

Browarnik’s nearly 20-year a career as chronicler of the rich, famous and beautiful who populate Miami started behind club doors. Thanks to nightlife — and the high-profile events, luxury shops, restaurants, museums and other clients that hire him — he now oversees a company of about 20 employees, making his the largest celebrity-photography enterprise in the region.

Far from the paparazzi who climb trees to capture unwelcome shots, South Florida’s celebrity-focused shutterbugs make a living by being invited to the parties, social events, milestones and homes of the wealthy and well-known. They can make $250-$500 an hour or more shooting events for a client, or they can sell photos individually through an agency.

Many of them are about to enter one of their busiest weeks of the year, with the parties, fairs, openings, gallery nights and other events that surround Art Basel Miami Beach. And they’ll have plenty of company as publications and agencies from all over the world send photographers to capture the scene.

“It’s a weeklong Super Bowl and everyone wants in,” said Jared Shapiro, editor in chief of Ocean Drive Magazine.

For most of the year, paparazzi are present but rarely command local headlines for their antics.

Jose Lambiet, who writes the GossipExtra online tabloid and pens a celebrity column for the Miami Herald, said the scene is active thanks to the celebrities, rappers and athletes who flock to South Florida. He pointed out that Splash, a global news and photo agency that offers money for tips and photos of celebrities, even has a bureau in Miami.

“Every celebrity you can think of at one point on a yearly basis shows up in Miami,” he said. “I go through the Splash pictures every day, and if it’s not Kate Hudson going thru the airport, it’s Leonardo DiCaprio on the balcony of the W.”

And even though some South Florida photographers are digging up tips and hiding out for photos, Lambiet said they tend not to create too much drama.

“I think they’re fairly well-behaved here,” he said. “In Miami, there are fewer of them compared to New York and L.A., so there’s less competition. They’re a lot more friendly to each other.”

Shapiro, whose previous publications include Us Weekly, Star Magazine and In Touch, said resident and even visiting celebrities tend to manage quiet lives in South Florida — thanks in part to the way they’re treated by local media and photographers.

At Ocean Drive, he says, “we celebrate the great celebrities and the things they do,” he said. “It’s part of the M.O. We don’t invite that sort of drama that you see necessarily in other big city hubs where celebrities are.”

The magazine will typically feature a mix of stars, models, socialites, philanthropists and business heavies — always posing and smiling — in its “Shot on Site” pages. Browarnik provides photos for that section, along with Manny Hernandez, another well-known local social and celebrity shooter.

“The culture was never started with that paparazzi tone,” Shapiro said. “‘It’s always ‘Hey smile! Hey smile!’ but not ‘Hey, I gotcha.’”

For World Red Eye photographers, that photo-friendly culture results in more than 4,000 jobs in 2014 — including more than 300 during the busy stretch around Art Basel Miami Beach — and the company expects to surpass that total this year. Revenues — he won’t reveal even a ballpark — have increased 25 percent or more annually over the past five years. Revenues come primarily from photography for specific events and retainers from regular clients.

That kind of empire would have been difficult for Browarnik to imagine back in 1998, when he started shooting for club king Chris Paciello at South Beach hot spots Liquid and Bar Room. Ian Schrager brought him on to capture the scene at the Delano, another celebrity magnet.

Lee Schrager, who created the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, recalls a frantic, omnipresent Browarnik from those early days: “My earliest memory of Seth is kind of: ‘Who the hell is this guy?’”

“He’s respectful, but he was everywhere,” said Schrager, vice president of corporate communications for Southern Wine & Spirits. “Professionally, I feel like he’s been such a part of Miami’s landscape and catapulting it to the next level.”

Even though photos were appearing on the website for Ocean Drive magazine in his early career, Browarnik felt insecure initially, wielding a point-and-shoot camera and waiting to be called out as a fraud.

“I literally for the first two years just did not know what I was doing,” said Browarnik, now 37.

After the first couple years, though, Browarnik knew he would build a business. As he kept shooting, he set out to create his own look for photos, exploring angles and using natural light. Consistency of style is so important that today, World Red Eye has a manual of about 25 pages for its 13 contract photographers, who go through intense training when they’re hired.

“You know it’s a World Red Eye shot without seeing that watermark,” said Jason Binn, who co-founded Ocean Drive and is now CEO of another magazine that he founded, DuJour. “The angles, the composition, the lighting, the edge.”

Browarnik launched Red Eye Productions — a name that came to him one day as he was driving — in 2000 as a photo agency. Four years later, he had a breakthrough moment courtesy of Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony. The couple had just married and rumors were flying about a possible pregnancy and complications after an ambulance showed up outside their home; paparazzi flocked to Miami to try to catch a glimpse.

Browarnik, who knew Anthony from the club scene, arranged for the famous couple to slip into the nightclub Mansion without being noticed.

His payoff: “Marc looked at me and goes, ‘You feeling lucky tonight?’” Browarnik recalled. He got an exclusive that sparked a bidding war and ended up selling for $75,000 in the first run. The image earned him more than $100,000 by the time it was done selling, he said.

“This was the photo that got me on the map,” Browarnik said.

And it was relationships — with Anthony and his people, with the ownership of Mansion — that made the photo possible. Unlike paparazzi, Browarnik wasn’t sneaking photos of stars who wanted to remain private; he was on the inside, always looking to capture a flattering image.

“He only has one goal in mind: to make the celebrities happy and the clients happy,” said Chad Fabrikant, a partner at Carma PR in Miami Beach.

Browarnik said that long history in Miami-Dade has opened doors throughout his career. “This whole business came because of personal relationships, since I was a kid,” he said. “There’s a relationship factor for everything.”

Today, his company photographs luxury shops in the Design District as well as Design Miami, the design-centric fair that runs alongside Art Basel Miami Beach. Browarnik can trace those jobs to his long association with Craig Robins, a principal of the Design Miami show who was central to the transformation of the Design District and, before that, South Beach.

“Seth has been a very important part of the social scene and documenting it since the relatively early South Beach days, and continues to be a vital part of our effort to communicate in the Design District,” Robins said. “Our relationship started in South Beach and he was always one of the really important personalities that had a good sense of what was happening and where to be.”

Five years ago, Browarnik realized that for a business like his, the place to be was online. He launched worldredeye.com to create his own platform for showcasing the company’s work and promoting the brand. He now considers the company a “multimedia digital platform/agency.”

Browarnik said he still shoots high-profile events but spends most of his time curating the website, which includes some sponsorships and minimal advertising. The company owns the rights of every image that its photographers shoot.

“What we’re doing is we’re creating the feel of somebody being at an event in a nightclub. And anything we’re shooting, we want them to feel like they are there,” he said.

While the company still sells its photos through the Startracks agency, that part of the business has shrunk as celebrities have embraced social media for distributing their own images — a reality that hit home a few years ago when Browarnik got what he thought would be a bestselling shot of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West at a Halloween party in New York. Instead, he said, they posted a photo on Instagram, and TV shows and celebrity publications used that image.

“This whole industry has changed. If I was solely basing my business on selling photos, I would have no business,” Browarnik said.

Instead, he encourages sharing of the photos on his site — all carry a watermark — and said he thinks it’s more important for someone like Kim Kardashian post a World Red Eye photo on Instagram than to see a photo in a print publication.

“I used to be so happy to see pictures in People or Us Weekly. I'm not going to say I don’t care; it just doesn’t excite me like it used to. The readers are falling, the magazines are slowly going away. So you have instant gratification, which is what digital is.”

Promotion on social media gets attention for the brand and garners publicity for clients, which Browarnik said is key for his business.

“It translates to more clients being happy, more clients coming and seeing us, saying ‘Oh my God, World Red Eye. You guys are everywhere. I need to be on your website.’”

World Red Eye still has retainers in place to shoot regularly at nightclubs, restaurants, hotels and other venues, and is hired to photograph galas, festivals, art shows, parties and other events. The company has five drones for capturing events, architecture and other footage, and also works in video production.

“Seth has been one of those dynamic, unique people who has engaged new forms of media that have enabled him to expand his platforms,” said Binn, the Ocean Drive co-founder. “Many of the biggest luxury products and services retain him and his company because they’re so versatile with ways they can capture an event and amplify an event using their own distribution channels and give different perspectives on the content.”

Diversification has brought changes in Browarnik’s role. He shoots only certain drone sessions, architectural assignments and events, but has no set number. Some months he might photograph one or two events in a month, others five to 10.

The exception is Art Basel: “I’m out all night,” he said. “I don’t put myself on one event for more than 30 minutes. I try to hit up six to 12, 13 events a night on a scooter. I'm everywhere.”

Last year, he broke his wrist on the first day of the Art Basel fair as he was heading to the Miami Beach Convention Center after braking hard on his scooter and flying off. He shot for two hours at the show — in pain and panicked about potentially missing crucial events — before heading to the emergency room. He was back shooting by 6 p.m. “This is how dedicated I am though, OK?” he said.

If Red Eye’s stable of photographers is booked, he finds more. “I don’t believe in turning down business, period,” he said. “My mom taught me that. You never say no to business; you never know when business won’t be around. You never think you’re too good for an event.”

When he’s not taking the photos himself, he lays out the most high-profile posts on the website, oversees the rest of the content, selects photos for publication and works on key events, partnerships and sponsorship programs. He also likes to creates editorial projects that aren't commissioned but that interest him or is likely to draw attention.

The company has also put on occasional events in the past few years, including the five-year anniversary of World Red Eye earlier this year. This summer, Pernod approached World Red Eye about creating a series of events it would sponsor; October’s panel discussion, which drew more than 300 and included live streaming, is result. The first in the series of quarterly “cultural exchanges” presented by Pernod’s Perrier-Jouët and Absolut Elyx centered around the influence of nightlife on Miami’s modern renaissance; the panelists included Paciello, who hired Browarnik nearly 18 years ago.

As he considers the future of his business, Browarnik said he is traveling less than he did in recent years and keeping a laser focus on Miami.

“Miami is exploding in front of our eyes and I’m not going to say that I’m riding the wave,” he said. “I’m at the forefront of the wave; I want to be at the center of it.”

But, he said, he would welcome a partner who could help him grow the business to include markets outside of Miami. Selling the company is not on the table.

“I’m not building this just to at some point give it up,” Browarnik said. “This is all I know.”

World Red Eye

Company: A multimedia digital platform and agency

Headquarters: Miami Beach

Founded: 2000 (as Red Eye Productions)

Employees: 20-25, depending on the time of year

Revenue: Grown 25 percent or more each year over the past five years

Work in 2014: More than 4,000 hired jobs

Notable clients: Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Bal Harbour Shops, Design Miami, Design District, Morgans Hotel Group, MMG, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Fontainebleau, The Collection, Maison & Objet Americas

Areas of focus: Weekly retainers at local restaurants, clubs and hotels; events; other shoots including architecture, drone, food and drink, fashion, portraits, festivals, celebrities; video production; photography sales

Cameras owned by company: More than 30

Drones in use: Five

Art Basel business: Shot more than 300 hired events during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2014

Page views: More than 16 million since launch of WorldRedEye.com in May 2010

Local interest: 21 percent of traffic to the site is generated from South Florida

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