Vanessa Bryant lost her husband, Kobe Bryant, and their 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, in January 2020, when their helicopter crashed under hazy skies in Calabasas, California. Her unimaginable grief was compounded by a breach of privacy, Bryant says: Eight months after Kobe and Gianna’s deaths, she sued Los Angeles County for emotional distress, invasion of privacy, negligence and other damages, alleging that sheriff’s deputies and firefighters took photos of her family’s remains, later shared photos of Kobe’s body with a bartender, and showed “gratuitous photos of the dead children, parents and coaches” who had also died in the crash.
Now, as the legal battle progresses, “I want accountability,” Bryant says in a wrenching new deposition. “I just don’t understand how someone can have no regard for life and compassion, and, instead, choose to take that opportunity to photograph lifeless and helpless individuals for their own sick amusement.” (Embattled Los Angeles County sheriff Alex Villanueva has not commented but said in a statement to the media last year that shortly after Kobe’s death, he “sponsored legislation which now makes it a crime for public safety personnel to take and share non-official pictures of this nature.”)
The deposition is a gutting glimpse into how Kobe’s death seemed to tear through the news and social media landscape before his wife knew the facts: Bryant says she was initially told by a family assistant that there were survivors in the crash. (There were none.) As she raced to pick up the couple’s eldest daughter, Natalia, from an ACT prep course, Bryant saw “RIP Kobe” notifications begin to pop up on her phone. Meanwhile, she still couldn’t get answers from authorities, saying “no one was telling me whether or not they were OK,” claiming they “couldn’t tell us anything over the phone.” Hours later, after Bryant unsuccessfully tried to charter a helicopter to the crash site, Villanueva broke the news at the sheriff’s station in Malibu.
Bryant’s account is a chilling indictment of celebrity death culture. The deaths of very famous figures seem to almost instantly become entirely public experiences, with little regard for the fact that they are also real, human people, with families, partners, children, and friends. This societal ill seemed to peak with Princess Diana’s death in 1997, but has only gotten worse in the decades since. In the age of peak social media, Twitter might have known about Kobe and Gianna’s deaths before their wife and mother did. Even if—as happened in this case—the air space over the crash was closed to prevent drone photographers and other prying eyes, anyone on the ground with a cell phone can be a paparazzo. Everything—even death—is content.