What Corbis Did to Sygma
(or, We Had to Destroy the Agency
in Order to Save It)

by Allan Tannenbaum
an ex-Sygma photojournalist

When Bill Gates' Corbis Corporation bought Sygma Photo News last year, we Sygma photographers were cautiously optimistic that the long decline of our agency would be reversed. Sygma's financial problems had affected our income, opportunities, and morale, so we were hopeful that the resources Corbis had would be invested to restore Sygma to its former glory. In that July, 1999, meeting with Tony Rojas (one of Corbis' two CEOs), we were promised many improvements, such as being paid promptly, and getting paid even if a publication defaulted. Of course he mentioned a contract and that the split would be 60/40 in favor of Corbis Sygma, the new entity. At that point he was informed that we photographers would not take less than a 50/50 split. I explained to Tony that many of us had helped build Sygma through our hard work, and created the value that they saw in the archives - that we had accumulated varying amounts of sweat equity. David Turnley sat in and told us all how wonderful Corbis is. Tony impressed us as a straight shooter and we were hopeful.

Soon thereafter we were invited to the Corbis office at 902 Broadway for food, drinks, and a tour. We got to see the vast number of filing cabinets, computers, and workers Corbis had crammed into their two loft floors. I asked Tony Rojas what Corbis bought when they bought Sygma - filing cabinets and what else? He replied that they had of course bought all the office equipment and furniture, as well as the rights to access our photos. I asked him why only the agency was paid for the right to access our photos and not the photographers, whose copyrighted photos were being accessed. He had no answer. I also asked him never to refer to us as "content providers" again.

Some of us were encouraged by the Corbis press release of August 3, 1999, announcing that David Turnley "will apply his expertise to the management of Corbis Sygma's leading photojournalists, who collectively develop compelling perspectives on today's news and refine the editorial vision for the organization." And that "he will lead a team of photographers and direct the next stage of photo-essay creation by building synergies between traditional photojournalism, television, an the Internet." Since I was a filmmaker in graduate school and have sold news video to the TV networks, I saw this as a great opportunity to branch out in a new direction. I even checked the schedule for the next Platypus Workshop. Les Stone and I both went to see David about digital journalism projects, but he made it clear to us that his Corbis Documentaries was not interested in any of Sygma's leading photojournalists.

The first indication that something was seriously wrong was Corbis' attempt to foist a contract upon the Sygma Paris photographers. Four Corbis execs spent a week in Paris, having brought with them a contract written under U.S. law, not French law. It contained a clause that the photographers would own the copyright to their photographs, but Corbis would copyright changes, such as color correction, cropping, and retouching made to the digitally scanned image. The changes would be copyrighted! How do you separate the changes from the image? Everyone felt that this was the back door through which Corbis would attempt to grab the rights to our images, and the photographers in Paris literally threw the contract back at the Corbis team and left the room. The spin that Corbis put on the incident claimed that they had gone to Paris with the wrong contract for the wrong group of photographers. This explanation is preposterous and makes them look inept and ridiculous.

Sensing they had a problem, Corbis execs attempted to listen to some of the photographers who were vocalizing their concerns. I met with Leora Kahn and Peter Howe to discuss the situation, and had some phone meetings with co-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.

Other changes were taking place at the time. Sygma's New York news editors were sending too many photographers to cover events, ensuring that no photographer would earn enough for his trouble. One news editor responded by saying they needed to corner the market on images. Really? Is that why we got into photojournalism? The Reuters news feed was being installed in our office - Corbis already adds Reuters and AFP newsphotos to their files after a one-week embargo. Corbis Sygma also takes photos it wants from the New York Post.

The recent resignation, after twenty years at Sygma, of Jean-Pierre Pappis - the only editor at Sygma capable of getting magazine assignments for us on a regular basis - is a clear indication that the situation is hopeless at Corbis Sygma. Being a Sygma news photographer is no longer viable, as the agency has become a traffic desk, feeding the Corbis machine. In this month's Talk magazine, there is a photo of Steve Jobs at the recent MacWorld Expo in New York, showing the new G4 cube, with the credit line "Reuters New Media / Corbis." I had covered that event for Corbis Sygma.

In addition, in order to gain market share against Getty and other competitors, Corbis is cutting prices it charges to license photos. This results in lower sales reports for all photographers. Despite the efficiencies of modern digital image transmission, Corbis still wants a third of foreign office sales, leaving photographers with only 33% of a sale in France, not 50%. Corbis is attempting to make mass deals with magazines like Time, where the magazine would get unlimited use of Corbis photographs for one yearly fee, thus saving both parties enormous accounting costs. The effect on photographers' income would be devastating. How long before there is a Corbis button on Microsoft Internet Explorer, where you can get free photographic wallpaper or screensavers? Corbis is trying to be a one-stop photo shopping mall for everything from $3.95 term paper illustrations, to royalty-free stock images, to cheap framed prints to photojournalism!

In its headlong rush to acquire as many agencies and images as possible, Corbis has overwhelmed itself with more material than it can assimilate. A photographer would be lucky to have 1% of his work scanned into the Corbis system, the rest being returned to him from the soon-to-be-gone analog files. Important pictures will be purged, and the photographers' income will drop even further. They haven't come forward with any plan to market images besides sticking them on a laughable website. In the contract, Corbis refers to itself as only a "licensor," not an agency. The heads of Corbis have no photographic or journalistic background, and have relied on the bad advice of lawyers and B-School grads who probably figured they could justify their high salaries by screwing photographers. The feeling among people in the business is that Peter Howe, a former photographer, left Corbis for greener pastures because he was fed up with having to sell the Corbis snake oil to wary photographers. But Corbis has done the photographic community one big favor, while sadly corporatizing and commoditizing what was once a collegial profession. Corbis has managed to alienate and unify so many photographers around the world who are now communicating on the Web. Our level of consciousness has been raised to the point where no one can sign a bad contract out of ignorance.

All of this came to a head for me last month, after giving Corbis one year to improve the situation for loyal Sygma photographers. Instead, the deterioration was palpable and rapid.

I first came to Sygma almost twenty years ago with my photos of John Lennon and Yoko Ono taken for the SoHo News. When that paper folded in 1982, I went to Sygma full-time, and had a chance to prove myself covering international news. So after all these years, it was not an easy decision to leave, but I had to, the agency has been destroyed. In the short time since I left, I found that there are lots of options, such as agencies that are managed on a human scale, a more personal basis, run by people who respect photography and photographers. There are many at magazines who don't like the way Corbis does business, and who like to work directly with photographers. The Internet is as accessible to individual photographers willing to use it as it is to Corbis. There will be new alignments, organizations, and opportunities in this time of flux. The spin-doctors at Corbis try to infer that the photographers who are dissatisfied with Corbis aren't willing to change in the digital age. Many of us have been using computers for years - I've been online since 1985. We are all well versed in scanning and sending digital photo files, have worked with digital cameras, and use the Internet for everything. We photojournalists have always been adaptable - we just don't want to adapt to our own extinction.

Meanwhile, at Getty...