and Loathing in France
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. Patricks 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.
my travel plans every time I go to Visa Pour LImage 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. Its 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.
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 its bound to coincide with one
strike or another.
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
was the first name on anyones 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.
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 its 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 theyre certainly going to hate his picture
agency. Strangely enough the name that simply wasnt 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.
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 wasnt) and heard a lot
of anger expressed about the firing of JP Laffont (he wasnt
either). But the most insane firing rumor was that the reason
Eliane Laffont didnt 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
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
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 wouldnt 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.
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 hadnt 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 Ive got some names for you.
The one thing
that didnt 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 Cobbs work on beauty, John Stanmeyers amazing
work from Indonesia, and the poignant presentation of Paul Fuscos
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. Theres too much
of it both good and bad for that to be true. But it has to change,
and it is changing, and thats 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.
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 aint great, but its good enough." Maybe the
best thing that will happen as a result of the turmoil in the
industry that were all experiencing at the moment is that
at least this wont be photojournalisms epitaph.