It is hard to overstate how the profession of editorial photography is endangered. Magazines and newspapers all seem to be marching in lockstep towards demanding either "work for hire" agreements giving them total rights to material shot on assignment, or other exorbitant demands on the people who helped to provide the original material which publications depended upon to distinguish themselves.

The firewall against the publisher's demands and the photojournalist has traditionally been the photo agency. The role of the agency, whether it was Black Star, Sygma, Gamma or SABA was to represent the photographer.

Photojournalists generally have been free spirits. They are rarely good business people. What for example, is the good business proposition for flying into a war torn country, where even survivability is open to question, let alone what the dollars and cents return will be? To participate in this dangerous game, photojournalists needed partners. They needed people who were concerned about the financial return, who would undertake the sales of photographs, partnering in the commission of assignments, and, at the end of the day, collect the money.

Between the photographers, the agencies, and the publications, an understanding was agreed upon. The agencies would help sell the ideas and pictures. The publications would commission assignments, a significant proportion of which would go to the agencies, and the photographers would, well, go out and do what they were supposed to do. Up until a few years ago, this system worked very well. The agencies would help to spread the cost of a major reportage among several different clients, some in the U.S., and the rest around the world. This would produce enough revenue to support the many people in the agency who would be responsible for shipment of the film, editing, sales, and archiving.

Archiving was a very important part of the process once a major story had been distributed. After the initial publications, the pictures went on to live forever in the files of the agencies. If there were important images in the work, the photographer could count on reaping the benefits throughout his or her lifetime. In short, the agencies worked for the photographer.

The people who ran these agencies were "moms and pops"" who knew the photographer and his or her work over a long period of time. They were inspirational forces, monitoring the progress of the photographer, giving guidance, and ever pushing them to greater heights. There was a great competition among the agencies to have the best photographers on the biggest stories. Books and exhibitions were often the result of these projects.

This all began to come unglued in the early 1990s, when Bill Gates, who was looking for images to fill the "live" picture frames he had in his new house, created Corbis. The goal was to gather the rights to as many photographs as possible. To this end, Corbis first bought Bettman, which was the repository of the images of United Press International and then Sygma, probably the leader in free-lance agencies. SABA another major agency, was soon acquired. At roughly the same time, Getty, began a similar initiative buying Liaison, Tony Stone Images and ALLSPORT.

One of the first things these mega-agencies discovered was that they now had "too many" pictures, more than could ever be successfully digitized. Also, like the "Sorcerer's Apprentice", photographers were continuing to pour new material into the flow. But now, there was no context for editors to understand what part these new arrivals would play in their acquisitions. More troublesome was the fact that these mega-agencies didn't OWN the new material. Therefore, it was an accounting nightmare.

To simplify things, Corbis and Getty decided that they would suspend contributions from free lancers whose material they didn't own. This ushered in the new breed; young, hungry photographers who would be happy to be given a digital camera and Sat-phone and flown off to the world's trouble spots. Generally the significance of owning their material was lost on them.

Actually, these agencies have really become wire services. With staff photographers it was possible to distribute the photographs electronically to a wide market. The flaw in this concept is that wire services such as AP, AFP and Reuters, have contractual agreements with newspapers and television, which means there is a constant cash stream flowing into the wires to underwrite the expenses of coverage, which can be huge. For example a single trip on Air Force One can cost thousands of dollars. In this area, Getty and Corbis can't compete with the wires. Without covering these "bread and butter" events, the agencies lose their "pool" status, which is crucial when it comes to covering major events, including wars.

The main agencies still left that actually represent photographers are Magnum, which has always been a cooperative, Contact, and the new cooperative, V!! founded last year.

Small boutique agencies open and close like petals on a rose. Most of the time, they depart leaving the photographers and agents who helped to found them destitute.

Meanwhile, for the photographers who supported the Gammas, Liaisons, and Sygmas throughout most of the 20th century, the monthly check, which was supposed to pay their mortgages into their old age, barely can buy a meal at McDonald's
Now that is shame!

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