Peter Howe

Corbis' Thanksgiving Turkey

Those of you that remember the instruction manuals that used to accompany Japanese manufactured equipment in the early days will be familiar to the "almost-English" through which they tried to inform the consumer of the intricacies of their purchase, mostly unsuccessfully. The experience for the reader was always a bit surreal. The words were recognizable, the order in which they were strung was reasonable, but they made no sense whatsoever. For those of you who miss those days there is a new source of intangible English, the web based translation services such as Alta Vista's Babelfish. These systems allow you to feed intelligible French or other foreign tongue in one end and get garbled English out of the other. Here is an example of some unintended poetry that purports to be the English version of part of an article in the French newspaper Liberation concerning Corbis Sygma France's latest difficulties:

"Certains " degreases ". Corbis-Sygma France, it, goes " externaliser " its team of photographes: the advertisement, thus coated, from the dismissal of forty paid which feeds the production of images of the agency fell Thursday, in a species of stupor. The all things considered measuring rod or gate."

Are we clear on this? Don't worry, because even with an accurate translation you probably wouldn't have been much more in the know as to what the actual situation is with the three French companies that Corbis owns, Sygma, Kipa and TempSport. What is clear is that once again the American Elephant in the French Living Room is moving around and causing reverberations throughout the house. As in all situations such as these the facts are often hidden in the quicksands of anger or justification, but this is what appears to constitute the reality of the situation.

One incontrovertible fact that everyone agrees upon is that Corbis is losing substantial amounts of money through its French news operation. In a company press release dated November 22nd they admit to a 30% decline in sales over the three years from 1997 - 2000 (Corbis bought Sygma in 1999), with estimates no better for 2001 putting losses at $9.3 million on sales of $14.3 million. The key numbers to better understand the situation from the company point of view are that according to its figures "the personnel costs that amounted to just 45% of sales in 1997 have increased in inverse proportion to the decline in sales and last year represented 74% of sales."

In interviews with the photographers and in postings on the various photographer Internet sites another set of figures arise that the Digital Journalist has not been able to independently confirm. According to these sources the same year that Corbis bought Sygma the agency had a loss of $570,000 on sales of $18 million whereas Kipa and Tempsport had no losses on revenues of $2.6 and $1.57 million respectively. The conclusion that the photographers want you to draw from these figures, and which indeed you can do if they are accurate, is that although the situation for Sygma was bad at the time of purchase, it has become much worse since.

Even most photographers agree that any company cannot justifiably sustain losses of this magnitude. What they disagree on is the solution that Corbis has proposed. The point of contention is Corbis' plan somewhat obliquely referred to in the press release as putting "into place a new system of relationships with Corbis Sygma." More bluntly put Corbis wants to eliminate the jobs of 42 photographers who work for the three companies on either a staff or semi-staff basis and only have free-lance relationships with any contributors in the future. For those of us in America the concept of semi-staff is a bit like being semi-pregnant, either you are or you aren't, but in France it makes perfect sense. In order for photographers to qualify for both a French press card, without which none of them can work, or for government health benefits, they must be able to produce salary statements from their agency. Thus even those photographers who receive no wages but a small advance against sales, or no advance at all but share expenses for production with the agency, all get the vital salary statement that they assume would not be a part of the arrangement with Corbis in the future. This is a safe assumption because the "Charges Sociales" that the company has to pay to the government for each salaried employee are enormous, and constitute a hefty amount of the personnel costs referred to in the press release.

In a recent interview with the Digital Journalist Joint CEO Steve Davis said that Corbis was still very much focused on photojournalism as a part of its business, and that he feels that there are three areas that they need to concentrate on to make it profitable. First of all they need, in his words "more focused global production with a less imbalanced perspective on the world" by which he means fewer US and French stories. His second area of change would be in what he calls "scale and focus" where Corbis does not absorb a huge cost structure, partially through pushing photographers to shoot digital files. The third opportunity he sees is "growth in sales of archival material into multiple markets."

For Patrick Durand, a Sygma staff photographer since 1986, this means only one thing, no support for production from the agency. He and others like him are convinced that Corbis is only interested in making second sales on pre-existing imagery, and that they will not share expenses for any work in the future. Davis himself concedes that there will be less work done on speculation. According to Durand, Paris based General Manager for Corbis-Sygma Franck Perrier has suggested that one possible future arrangement between Corbis and the photographers would be for them to form their own company, with Corbis selling the archive that the new company produces. Durand says: "It's a perfect plan for them: we work on our own, pay all the incumbent costs (our expenses, our films, etc) try to make the first sales and bring Corbis the material which they only have to sell." The company's reaction to his statement through spokesperson Michael Croan is that discussions with the photographers' Joint Consultative Committee have not reached a stage where that level of detail would be discussed. In fact, he says, the photographers have refused at this point to even read the plan that has been offered to them.

Durand's suspicions that the future of Corbis Sygma will not include agency-supported production are reinforced by the fact that the job eliminations do not stop with the photographers. According to the press release a total of 54 non-photographer positions will also disappear, many of them from staff that would be used to assist in production. This would bring the total job losses for the three companies to 96, although the figure of 118 is being floated in photographer circles in Paris, which the photographers say they base on figures given to them by Perrier and include a number of positions in the commercial department that have been described as being modified.

As it stands at the moment of writing there has been no change in the status of the photographers. In order to do this kind of large scale reorganization in France there are certain steps that have to be taken in order to conform to French law. The first of these is to present the plan to the Joint Consultative Committee, which is a body of employee representatives chosen by their peers. The plan also has to be presented to the government, who may then appoint a mediator. Durand and Davis are in agreement on one point, that the plan will eventually be implemented. Where they disagree is in how the photographers will react to it. Davis remains optimistic that through negotiation they can come to a solution that will work for both the company and the contributors. Durand has little faith in this being possible. He says that the photographers don't believe a word that Corbis is telling them, especially the ones who just recently signed the new contract. Describing the morale as low Durand goes on to say, "no-one in Paris is in the mood to go back on the field and invest money in producing stories. Since last week not a single photographer at Sygma is ready to take any risks covering stories like Israel or Afghanistan for Corbis."

Corbis has made an already difficult task harder by an inept piece of communication that could have been avoided. On occasions such as holidays it is usual for CEOs Steve Davis and Tony Rojas to send global e-mails to each of the employees. They did this on November 21st, wishing them all a Happy Thanksgiving, thanking them for "their contributions and dedication to Corbis and its vision" and saying that both executives feel "very privileged to work with each of you." This ranks high in the "no good deed goes unpunished" awards, for the next day the layoffs in Paris were announced. Like drowning people grasping at straws the photographers had taken the well-wishing e-mail as a sign that everything was going to be all right, only to have their worst fears realized within twenty-four hours.

What are we to deduce from all of this? Clearly Corbis and their French companies, especially Sygma, are suffering from cultural barriers that have yet to be surmounted. These barriers span two cultures, the culture of France and it's affection for photography as well as for the protection of workers' rights, and the culture and needs of photojournalism. France is the land where photography was invented (although followers of Fox Talbot would dispute this) and it is regarded as one of the jewels in that country's cherished cultural crown. France actually has a Ministry of Culture, and the Minister is an important figure in the French political landscape. The thought that an American company owned by none other than Bill Gates is making decisions that will affect the cultural life of France in any way is an anathema to most French citizens and gives the photographers an enormous amount of support, especially in the French press. Furthermore one of the key issues at the heart of this present situation is the prohibitive regulation that the French government places on any employer with regard to employee protection. French businesses are used to this situation, and use creative ways to get round it. To an American trained MBA the restrictions are appalling.

The culture of photojournalism is based on a very closely-knit community operating at this moment with a siege mentality. This is especially true of the Sygma photographers. They suffered from many years of ownership change and mismanagement in the Paris office before Corbis acquired them and are naturally suspicious of any move that any owner makes.

Obviously Corbis is trying to bring the operation of these three businesses in line with the rest of its undertakings, namely to function as the licensor of pre-existing photography. From Seattle's point of view this makes a lot of sense. It's what they know how to do, and what they do best. However there is a fundamental difference between the re-licensing of photojournalism and any other genre of photography. Commercial stock photographers are prepared to absorb the costs of their production because of the return they can get on such an investment. A shot may cost $10,000 and upwards in model and location fees, assistants, stylists, make-up artists etc., but if done well it can net a return in excess of $100,000. Celebrity photography of the kind that Outline sells so successfully can only be obtained through assignment work because of the controls exerted by the Hollywood publicists, and once again the returns can be huge. Photojournalism demands a much more active participation by the agency. The costs associated with sending a photographer anywhere are enormous, and the limited returns of this market make it impossible for self-funding to be an option in most cases. The only two alternatives are getting an assignment, which is becoming increasingly difficult, or co-production with the agency. Complicating this is the fact that the earning power of a set of documentary photographs is so dependent on the news of the day. Pictures of Afghanistan, its people and traditions may be flying off the shelves right now, but you couldn't have given them away six months ago.

An archive of photography is a living entity that requires constant refreshment, especially in the news arena. If Corbis takes away the financial oxygen from the air it will change the Sygma archive into one that as time goes by will increasingly resemble the Bettmann Collection. Corbis would probably argue, with some justification, that this would not be a bad thing, since Bettmann is a profitable part of the empire. However it completely changes the relationship between the agency and the photographer. Another aspect of this relationship that is as important as financial support is emotional sustenance. Being a photojournalist is an exceedingly lonely existence. The agency and its employees with whom the photographer works intimately are an important buttress against this solitude. They reinforce the photographer's belief in the value of the story, and offer guidance on the quality of the images, as well as provide information that is often unavailable in the field. Photojournalists are the only photographers who are often called upon to risk their lives for their work. Theirs is the biggest investment for the smallest return, and for this reason alone they feel they deserve a higher degree of encouragement and support.

Steve Davis and Tony Rojas are well aware that the owner to whom they report, although a patient investor up to now, will not tolerate further these losses that frankly are unsustainable. The solution that they have come up with makes perfect sense to them, but is viewed by the French photographers as a disaster. There is no doubt that Corbis will institute a version of its plan in which the key element, the change to 100% free-lance contributors, is unchanged. Whether or not it can provide adjustments that retain this central constituent but satisfy the photographers, thereby validating Davis's optimism remains to be seen.

© 2001 Peter Howe

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