"Saying Goodbye to Sygma"


Editorial by Dirck Halstead

Allen Tannenbaum, a photojournalist with a distinguished career, resigned last month after years with Sygma Picture Agency. Many of his fellow photographers also did the same. His account of the developments that led to his painful decision can be found in this issue. As a photojournalist, it makes me very sad.

The Sygma case is emblematic of much of what's wrong with freelance photojournalism today. There are many different views of what it was, or is, that Corbis, the mega picture collection, owned by Bill Gates, did to alienate the photographers. Peter Howe, the former Director of Photography for Corbis, writes from his perspective in this issue as well. There is talk of demands made by Corbis regarding rights to the pictures they will be selling. During a first meeting with photographers in Paris, Corbis came up with the proposition that the photographs would remain the intellectual property of their creators. However, in the same breath, they suggested that once Corbis had made any sort of digital enhancement -- presumably extending to the most basic "cleaning up" of the photograph -- henceforth that new version would become the property of Corbis.

What is the most troubling part of Allen's article is when he describes his meeting with Corbis CEO Steve Davis:

"I explained to Davis that in the past Corbis had bought collections, but with Sygma he had bought lives, as the relationship between a photojournalist and an agency is very organic. I'm sure he didn't understand how we often develop and co-produce stories in a mutually beneficial way. In a meeting I had with him after their totally one-sided contract was presented to us in New York, I said that the photographers considered Corbis' attempt to charge us for things previously promised for free was cheesy. Davis told me that if I didn't trust them, I had options. In other words, if you don't like it, you can leave. I considered this arrogant and disrespectful, and certainly not 'photographer friendly.' Despite this impertinence, I continued the dialog and insisted that he listen to the ideas and opinions of the photographers. The answer to a business question I posed was, 'the direction of the industry is royalty-free.' To the buying of the rights to access the photographers' archives, his response was simply, 'I've heard that before.' He said that Corbis did not want to co-produce any journalistic projects. He added that Sygma no longer existed as a legal entity. This hit home as I realized the Sygma I knew no longer existed."

There it is, Sygma no longer exists. What an abrupt and terrible end for one of the world's leading photo agencies. Over the years, Sygma photographers produced some of the finest examples of photojournalism. Such major projects as JP Laffont's multi-year study of Child Labor around the world. A Sygma photographer trekked over the Andes to photograph the exclusive story of the survivors of a plane crash that had resorted to cannibalism in order to live. The story, "Alive," later became a book and movie. During the Gulf War, Sygma photographers, refusing to take part in the U.S. Defense Department's "pool," shot photographs from the battlefields that none of their pool-bound colleagues could have captured. In fact, it was a Sgyma photographer who beat the allied forces into Kuwait City by one full day, and he wound up with a company of Iraqi soldiers trying to surrender to him.

If Davis did indeed indicate that Corbis didn't want to co-produce journalistic projects, he may have signed the death warrant for freelance photojournalism.

Throughout the history of magazine journalism, particularly in the past few decades, what made covering the far-flung newsfronts of the world possible was to a large extent the agencies. Sygma, Gamma, Saba, Magnum, Liaison, and many smaller agencies provided the financial wherewithal to support the enormous travel expenses photographers needed to do their work. The role of the agency was critical. Photographers are not major corporations, with extensive credit lines. They often live from month to month, and if they had to wait to receive payment from the magazines they eventually sell their stories to, they would lose their credit cards, apartments or houses, and perhaps, even be unable to buy the film they use to take their pictures. In today's bottom-line environment, prying money lose from magazine accounting departments is a slow and frustrating procedure. If the photographer could afford to do his or her own sales and collections and run their own archives, they wouldn't need an agency.

For many years, agencies were largely mom-and-pop operations. They and their photographers constituted a family. One of the main objectives was to grow their collections by adding distinguished new coverage. When the "megaagencies" came on the scene, their goal was to "own all the pictures." To that end, Corbis started gobbling up the agencies,and making their owners "offers they couldn't refuse." What these giants wanted was the archives. What they did not want was to fork out more money for new coverage. The acquisition of those archives meant -- in their minds -- they need no longer deal with the world of journalism.

If you ask a photojournalist what their favorite story is, the answer's usually "the one I'm working on." Like most journalists, they don't live in the past. What they have contributed to history is for editors and historians to sort out. This is the bedrock of the future for the world's photographic legacy.

Corbis has ruined a proud institution. They don't understand the nature of the business they decided to dominate. They have the resources to save these institutions and lives. But do they have the moral and ethical conscience?

Dirck Halstead

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