Fear and Loathing in France

by Peter Howe


When you fly as much as I do you become obsessive about certain airports. I avoid Cleveland at all costs; St. Louis will forever be associated with an unfortunate incident on St. Patrick’s Day involving green beer and a middle-aged waitress; in Chicago I get travel sick going through that long connecting tunnel with the flashing neon lights. However, for sheer unacceptability on any level it is hard to beat the unlovely Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris. Every time I am transported through those long Plexiglas tubes I swear that this will be the last time I suffer the experience. The whole airport looks like it was designed by a depressed and vengeful architect and built by a construction company that quickly left town upon its completion.

Consequently my travel plans every time I go to Visa Pour L’Image take me through Barcelona for the quick hour and a half drive across the Franco Spanish border to Perpignan. For an airport connoisseur Barcelona is hard to beat. It’s small, well run, the rental cars are just across the street (no courtesy buses, an oxymoron if ever there was one) and the duty-free shopping on the way back is excellent. My kind of travel experience.

However the drive this year from the airport to the festival was a forewarning of the strange times to come. I was about 10 kilometers into France when I saw a long traffic jam on the other side of the autoroute. As far as the eye could see cars and trucks were crawling along due to the fact that about thirty taxis driving at less than walking pace were blocking all the lanes. Then I remembered reading in USA Today on the plane that there was industrial action involving truckers, farmers and now presumably taxi drivers protesting the cost of gas. I used to think that the French union organizers had something against Visa because they always seemed to be planning some kind of protest around the time that it happened. I have come to realize that there is always industrial action in France so whenever Visa is held it’s bound to coincide with one strike or another.

The anger and militancy of the French gas consumer was an appropriate setting for the feelings of the photographers attending this annual celebration of photojournalism. In fact if you had taken any press coverage of the protests and replaced the word farmer/taxi driver/trucker with the word photographer, and the name OPEC with the name Corbis the report would probably still have made perfect sense. The commonality was striking. Both groups feeling a threat to their livelihoods, a shared expression of frustration and anger against a distant and powerful cartel, and an avowed determination not to take it any more.

If Corbis was the first name on anyone’s lips, Howe seemed to be a close second. Because of my much discussed involvement with the company and also the fact that I had left their employ five days before arriving in France I caught people in my peripheral vision looking at my ID tag and nudging each other with expressions ranging from sadness to contempt. On several occasions colleagues said "Ah ha, the man of the hour" in a tone of voice that made it clear this was an hour that nobody in his right mind would want to be man of.

It’s interesting to me the way that Corbis has become the lightening rod for all the fear, anger and frustration of the photojournalistic community. Not that it’s all unjustified, but it does seem to be out of proportion to the "crimes" committed. A lot of this probably has to do with Mr. G. If everyone hates William H. Gates then they’re certainly going to hate his picture agency. Strangely enough the name that simply wasn’t heard in Perpignan was Getty, which is surprising because their contracts are more onerous, and their stated aims more threatening than anything Corbis has proposed so far.

Another thing that I have found fascinating is the metamorphosis of unsubstantiated rumor into undisputed fact. I received a lot of unnecessary commiseration for my recent firing from Corbis (I wasn’t) and heard a lot of anger expressed about the firing of JP Laffont (he wasn’t either). But the most insane firing rumor was that the reason Eliane Laffont didn’t attend the Corbis Press Conference was because Steve Davis fired her that afternoon. It would take a man of monumental insensitivity and stupidity, neither of which Steve is, to fire Eliane during Perpignan at all, never mind just before a press conference, which presumably was called to calm photographers’ fears.

But how about that press conference? If there was one event that went from the strange to the surreal it was the Corbis press conference. First of all it was an off again on again event that finally took place at 5 pm on Friday afternoon, not exactly prime time, but the only slot that the organizers had left. On the platform were Steve Davis, Jim Roehrig, Francois Hebel, Marcel Saba and David Turnley. Each sat in front of cards with their names, and each exhibited the exaggerated calm that betrays extreme nervousness. Steve opened the proceedings with a statement emphasizing Corbis’ continuing commitment to photojournalism, and apologizing for the missteps and miscommunications that the company has made. Francois gave an overview of the state of the negotiations with the French Sygma staff photographers, Jim and Marcel explained why they had sold their respective agencies to Corbis, and how they stood by those decisions, and David explained some of what his Corbis Documentaries unit was up to. No great revelations, but nothing too contentious either.

At the end of this Steve turned to the packed house and asked if there were any questions. The tension was palpable. The targets were lined up. This was it. Gunsmoke time. Silence reigned for about a minute. Steve repeated his question. The audience repeated its silence. And that was it. The event ended without one question. It was truly bizarre. Not even a query from the heron-like figure of David Walker from Photo District News. It was after all called a press conference

I left Perpignan directly after this un-press un-conference. I had a very early flight out of Barcelona on Saturday morning, and I was worried that truckers or others would block the autoroute. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to relax until I got over the border, so I decided to drive to Barcelona airport and stay in one of the airport hotels. It was a bit like being in a Humphrey Bogart movie. I half expected to see Peter Lorre in the passenger seat as I planned alternate routes, and charted the quietest roads through which to make my escape into Spain if necessary. It turned out to be a monumental disappointment. If anything there were fewer trucks on the road presumably because of the lack of available diesel, and not a single taxi. I flew through the border with a feeling of having been cheated. No twin engined plane waiting in the swirling fog to whisk me off to Lisbon in the nick of time before the hordes of angry taxi drivers and photojournalists descended on the airstrip. Just open boring road with Peter Lorre asleep beside me. It was the Corbis press conference all over again.

The whole experience of Perpignan left me with a sense of real sadness. I truly believe that if this profession that I still hold dear is to survive and prosper it has to be through a partnership of photographers and agencies. I know that during my thirteen plus years as a photojournalist my meager income would have been much more meager if it hadn’t been for the income provided by the agencies that represented me at one time or another. And let me tell you, I was exploited by some of the best in the business. Believe me, if you think photographer exploitation began with Corbis and Getty I’ve got some names for you.

The one thing that didn’t disappoint was the photographs. Each year Jean Francois Leroy manages to put together one or two exhibitions that really remind you why you got into this business in the first place. There were several this year, three of my favorites being Jody Cobb’s work on beauty, John Stanmeyer’s amazing work from Indonesia, and the poignant presentation of Paul Fusco’s photographs taken from the funeral train of Robert Kennedy. If anyone doubts the power of photography to conjure up and bear witness to an epoch then this exhibition, displayed in a long line like cars on a railroad train, will dispel those doubts eloquently. I have no worry that photojournalism lives. There’s too much of it both good and bad for that to be true. But it has to change, and it is changing, and that’s a painful process. Nietsche once said that if you stare into the abyss long enough the abyss starts to stare back at you. I got the distinct impression at Perpignan that someone was staring.

One final word on Barcelona airport. When I got there early Friday evening I found out its fatal flaw. There are no airport hotels at Barcelona airport, only limitless acres of industrial complex. I ended up in a business hotel about twenty kilometers outside the city limits. As I slipped between the reasonably clean sheets I thought: ‘Well, it ain’t great, but it’s good enough." Maybe the best thing that will happen as a result of the turmoil in the industry that we’re all experiencing at the moment is that at least this won’t be photojournalism’s epitaph.

Peter Howe