Tom Palm takes a lot of photos—during his busiest season, as many as 3,000 a day. But he insists that he’s not actually a professional photographer. Don’t ask him to shoot photos of your wedding or your high schooler’s graduation—he’ll politely turn you down. However, if you happen to be out enjoying Lake Minnetonka on a sunny summer afternoon, keep your eye out for Palm, and then be ready to smile and strike a pose. He’ll be perched atop the tower of his fishing boat, camera in hand, ready to snap your photo—if you’d like, of course.
Since 2013, Palm has been the sole member of the Tonka Paparazzi. Sure—the waters of Wayzata Bay aren’t exactly the streets of Hollywood, but Palm isn’t a typical paparazzo, either. He doesn’t snap photos of celebrities—just people swimming, boating and floating around the waters of Lake Minnetonka. He doesn’t make a profit off the photos, either—thanks to the support of sponsors, the pictures are available to download for free. If you don’t want your photo taken, it’s no problem—he’s completely understanding.
Palm says that the idea for Tonka Paparazzi first sprang from a photo his daughter took of him. It’s a silhouette of him driving his fishing boat. “[She] took it from her boat,” he says. “I don’t know why she had a camera, but she did.” There was something special about that particular vantage point. A lifelong Minnesotan and boating enthusiast, Palm had plenty of pictures of himself in his boat but never one that captured such a full scope. “I grew up on the lake, and I have a lot of friends on the lake. Never do I remember any of us having a picture of us in our boat taken from another boat,” he says. “You get a picture, but you never get the captain or the whole boat moving.” He loved the photo so much that he stuck it above his fax machine to serve as a year-round reminder of warm days out on the open water. It also got him wondering—would other people like similar photos of themselves? If the popularity of Tonka Paparazzi is any indication, the answer is a resounding yes.
The concept behind Tonka Paparazzi is relatively simple. Palm cruises around Lake Minnetonka, snapping photos of happy lake-goers. He’s easy to spot, always in the same yellow boat with “Tonka Paparazzi” emblazoned on the side and a banner that says “Free Photos Online.” When he goes by, most people recognize him immediately and start cheering and posing. Palm snaps several photos, which he uploads to his website (tonkapaparazzi.com) by noon the next day.
This summer marks Tonka Paparazzi’s fifth year in business, and Palm says the operation has changed drastically since he first started. “Oh, that first year was a disaster,” he says with a laugh. He initially sorted photos by boat license number when uploading them but quickly ran into problems. Few people knew the license of the boat they were on, especially if they were using a friend’s boat or a rental, and it made for tedious, time-sucking work. Downloads were initially $9.95 each, but after a while, traffic dropped off as people felt like they had enough photos. Thanks to the suggestion of a friend, Palm found a handful of local businesses to sponsor Tonka Paparazzi and started sorting photos by day and time. The sponsors’ logos frame the bottom edge of each photo and disappear after the photo is downloaded. Palm says the idea has worked perfectly. “The sponsors loved it, the number of views just went through the roof, and people now know that all the photos are free and theirs to keep,” he says.
Initially, Palm wasn’t sure how people would respond to the project. “I thought, who knows how they’re going to react? If they’ll be like, ‘What are you doing?’” But the reaction has been totally positive. “It wasn’t like I was jumping out from hiding behind bushes,” he says. “Once they saw this, they knew it was just a gig.”
Of course, he occasionally runs into people who don’t want to have their photo taken. In that case, he simply moves on. “I’m always sitting in the channel where the most boats go by, all completely out in the open,” he says. Since he started Tonka Paparazzi, he’s only had one person request that their photo be removed online, and he happily obliged.
Palm says that he plans to continue Tonka Paparazzi for the foreseeable future, but he sees it as a fun hobby and not a full-time job. He’s grateful for the support of his sponsors, all local businesses, who provide the funds needed to keep the site running. Although he gets a lot of thanks for his photos, he insists that it’s not deserved. “Thank the sponsor, don’t thank me,” he says. “I’ve got an easy gig.” For him, the best reward is seeing how happy lake-goers are and helping them remember their special days on the water. “The fun thing is, you put people on a boat on a Saturday or Sunday, and they’re just all smiling, laughing, cheering,” he says. “You never see people on a boat upset. No matter what, it seems like they’re all having a good time.”