image sourceGetty Imagesimage captionJennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck have been holidaying together as a reunited couple

Looking at pictures of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck draped over each other on a yacht it's almost like we can squint and pretend we're back in the heady days of 2002.

One of the (now multiple) images to be published in recent days shows the pair replicating steamy scenes from the music video for Jenny from the Block, in which Lopez has her bottom affectionately caressed by her then-fiancé – and now reunited partner.

The pictures, first posted on celebrity news website TMZ last week, quickly flooded social media with a dose of nostalgia and intrigue as people scrambled to check their calendars.

But eagle-eyed viewers also spotted an on-board photographer capturing the moment the couple canoodled on the deck of their yacht.

Ben Affleck Helps Himself to a Handful of J Lohttps://t.co/h5kQCsr4rs

— TMZ (@TMZ) July 26, 2021
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The episode highlighted the enduring power of the pair formerly known as Bennifer – not just for fans, or the media, but also for the stars themselves.

Tabloid 'dream pairing'

The fascination with Bennifer 2.0 reflects the special place the couple occupied when they first dated, says Ed Gleave, TV editor at Daily Star Sunday.

They got together in 2002, at the height of tabloid media, when the print press still held sway over celebrity culture. For long lens photographers and gossip columnists, they were the "dream pairing" of noughties celebrity power couples.

Both were riding waves of success that sustained media interest. Lopez, fresh from the success of her first number one album, J Lo, was sustaining a parallel career in Hollywood – starring in romcoms Maid in Manhattan and The Wedding Planner, as well as the crime thriller Out Of Sight and horror flick The Cell.

image sourceGetty Imagesimage captionLopez and Affleck at a premiere of Maid in Manhattan in 2002

Affleck, the youngest screenwriter ever to win an Oscar – for Good Will Hunting at the age of 25 – was equally in-demand, after starring in Shakespeare in Love and Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears. In December 2002, he was also named People Magazine's "Sexiest man alive".

"It's rare you get a celeb couple where both of them are A-listers, so when it happens, fans go wild for it," says Gleave.

"They were both at the top of their game and both sexy, so plenty of people cared about their private lives and plenty of people wanted to look at photos of them."

For two years they crafted their image – playing on the voyeuristic media tryst they'd helped create for the Jenny from the Block music video.

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After Affleck proposed with a custom-made pink diamond ring in November 2002, the photos kept coming – including the paparazzi scene the couple re-staged last week.

But the intensity of the spotlight, as well as the punishing reception for their sub-par rom-com Gigli, eventually took its toll.

They postponed their wedding in September 2003 due to "excessive media attention", and separated the following January.

"We didn't try to have a public relationship, we just happened to be together at the birth of the tabloids" Lopez told Jess Cagle in 2018.

"We may have played into that in the beginning because it was fun… but then it was destroying us.

"It was a lot of pressure… [a] different time…".

For freelance entertainment journalist Myra Ali, the default celebrity narrative between press and public at the time was to "build people up and watch them fall to pieces".

The words "be kind" certainly didn't register.

Back to the future

Fast-forward two-decades – at a very different time, amid a global pandemic – and their relationship revival (after their respective failed marriages and Affleck's addiction battles) not only symbolises a love story potentially repaired, but a yearning for a comforting past.

"The pandemic has made us all crave things that are familiar", says Gleave. "Humanity always does this during times of crisis. There's a reason why there was a baby boom after World War Two.

"The return of Bennifer also gives everyone hope that a happy ending is possible. Anyone with a first love they secretly hanker for will take a bit of hope from it.

"That's why there was so much excitement when we thought Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt might give it another go.

image sourceEPAimage captionThe reunited couple were pictured aboard the luxury yacht, Valerie

"Bennifer ticks all the boxes and it's just what a lot of people need right now."

In this light, the way the public consumed the news – through a pop culture reference to a video from the couple's heyday, rather than Lopez's official Instagram posts – feels fitting.

Picture perfect?

The image debuted on TMZ and spread, largely uncredited, on social media, illustrating how much the celebrity press landscape has both changed and stayed the same.

Entertainment photographer Carla Speight, who has experience in PR, explains that the image could have been worth thousands on the open market.

"It's thoroughly clickable and 'hot topic' in terms of public interest-type entertainment news. Exclusive deals with people like TMZ would go into five figure, easily" she says.

This is important for today's photographer because the unregulated nature of social media means the photo can quickly become financially worthless once it begins to gain traction.

"It's happened to me a million times over – fans screen grab the image [and] post it on socials, with no copyright.

"But all that said, the still image is very relevant, even in the days of social media."

"Time is a flat circle" pic.twitter.com/DmkG0P1sce

— Lana Lynch🏳️‍⚧️ (@lanaxlynch) July 25, 2021
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Part of the appeal of the Bennifer 2.0 image was its supposedly candid nature, the idea that we were getting a glimpse of an unguarded moment – which is why people called foul when they spotted a photographer on the boat with the couple. But Speight says it would not be unusual for a photo like this to be staged.

"If that shot was set up, they did it for good reason," she says. "Once that photo has got out there [and] gone viral, the press will ride it for days.

"It will devalue any other images that happen in the days after and therefore there's less paparazzi lurking. Also, it gets people talking about them.

But unlike the early 2000s, when Affleck and Lopez would rely on the media to keep themselves in the public eye – Affleck even placed an advert in Variety magazine to profess his love – any potential editorial collusion between the press and the stars is being challenged by social media.

Heat magazine's news editor Kate Randall explains that "celebs know that they don't always need the press and can now interact with their fans on their Instagram, Twitter and Tik Tok and feel they have more control over the narrative".

Now, celebrity gossip accounts such as Deux Moi – which transparently requests and shares anonymous tips – reaches one million followers on Instagram alone.

"Social media allows these images a much greater reach in a shorter amount of wait time than early 2000s tabloid media – and people are impatient so they need that immediate gratification from new information," its editor, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells BBC News.

"People are also much more savvy now – so I think they like to play detective and speculate if the relationship was rekindled based on Ben and Jen's genuine feelings for each other or for PR purposes.

Now they tend to believe audience-perpetuated gossip over a celebrity telling their 'truth'".

And as for the truth behind the Bennifer 2.0 picture?

"People are speculating that Ben & Jen were recreating scenes from her Jenny From The Block video for it's anniversary and I think that's why her personal photographer was there," says Deux Moi's editor.

"This goes back to the lust for nostalgia during the pandemic… People are craving it right now and Ben and Jen are responding accordingly.

"That's a smart and generous celebrity in my opinion."

While Randall agrees, she notes that stars such as Affleck and Lopez "thrive on attention", meaning that sometimes a social media post alone "just won't do".

"They want their picture on story in every newspaper, magazine and website out there", she says.

Randall adds that the key ingredient to this balancing act in 2021 is providing a sense of authenticity that feels relatable – especially as society begins to reject the insincerity of the original, perfectly manicured, influencer age.

"Fans are starting to clock on that what is posted on Instagram is not always the truth and want to see the imperfect pictures, like the candid photo – to get more of an insight into the limited story and pictures celebs are giving out.

"With Bennifer 2.0, it's as if we're back in 2002 and it feels exciting again."

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