art is the synthesis of human expression then there are two countries
that have raised industrial action to an art form. Compared to the creativity
of strikes in both my former home land, Britain, and its neighbor across
the channel, France, work stoppages in this country are dull events
indeed, with the exception, of course, of the Teamsters. The ingenuity
of disaffected workers to communicate their position to the outside
world took on a new level of inventiveness recently with the barrage
of emails and jpegs from striking Corbis photographers and staff in
Paris that descended on my mailbox and those of many others in the industry
in the closing days of January. It is the latest example of the way
that photographers understand and have embraced the power of digital
communication, and it is ironic that it is being effectively used against
a company owned by Bill Gates.
the action is being thought of as a Sygma strike in fact it includes
the photographers and staff of both Kipa and TempSport. One Paris based
photographer that I spoke with claimed that the participation rate was
around 95% of all of the people employed by the three companies that
Corbis acquired in France. Although the frustration level in the Corbis
Paris office has been escalating for some time, it is the failure to
come to a negotiated agreement over Corbis' "externalization plan"
that finally precipitated the walk out. Under this plan Corbis would
no longer employ any staff photographers in Paris, but would accept
submissions on a freelance basis of completed work for distribution.
While under any circumstances this fundamentally changes the traditional
relationship between the agency and the photojournalist, there are also
two problems that are specific to the situation in France. The first
is the absolute necessity in that country for photojournalists to have
a State issued Press Card. Without this accreditation it is almost impossible
for any photographer to cover a variety of events, and it is absolutely
impossible to get one unless you work for a newspaper, magazine or recognized
press agency. The arrangement with the photographers that Corbis is
instituting would preclude them from being in any of the accepted categories.
The second issue arising out of this is the payment of "charges
sociales", the equivalent of our social security payments, but
at a much higher percentage of income. Under the present arrangement
Corbis pays at least part of these charges for all of the photographers
and staff, whatever their status within the company. Under the new proposal
the photographers would have to carry this burden by themselves. Although
this situation is the result of French laws and something that can in
no way be affected by Corbis, it would be nevertheless a financial blow
that few photographers could absorb.
again Corbis made some serious missteps in its handling of the events
of the week. Some of the photographs mentioned above were e-mailed to
Corbis employees worldwide by people in the Paris office. The system
administrator in Bellevue, Washington, immediately deleted the e-mail
and a follow up was sent out warning recipients that the offending original
contained a virus. Corbis defends this action by saying that the e-mail
matched a profile that automatically arouses the suspicions of the administrator.
The matching characteristics, they say, are: it had no subject line;
it was sent for worldwide distribution; it had attachments; it came
from an unrecognized sender, email@example.com, which the photographers
claim is the digital department of the Paris office (I tested this address
by sending an e-mail to it. The e-mail went through, but to date I have
received no response.) Even though Corbis' clarification sounds plausible,
given the atmosphere at the moment, they could have done a better job
of communicating it. The issue was dealt with in a regular weekly Q
& A staff e-mail the following Friday, but by that time the rumors
and accusations had reached a level whereby the explanation was dismissed
by both the French photographers and staff.
The photographers make a much more serious allegation when they claim that the corporation's French lawyers stated that if there was no agreement between the company and the photographers their archives would be returned to them but without the slide mounts, and therefore the caption information, and minus protectors on the negatives. The reason given for this bizarre threat was that the company had paid for these items in the first place and that they therefore did not belong to the photographers. The photographers also claim that a couple of days later Franck Perrier, Corbis' general manager in Paris, confirmed that this threat had been made after outraged photographers confronted him, something that I'm sure happens on a daily basis. Corbis and Perrier deny that both the threat and the confirmation were ever made. They also point out that dismounting thousands of slides would be so expensive that it would hardly be worth the effort.
in all such situations who did what to whom is always a matter of conjecture,
assertion and denial. What is undeniable, however, is that the situation
has deteriorated dramatically since the announcement of the reorganization
last Thanksgiving, a holiday that the French photographers don't celebrate
and under the circumstances are unlikely to in the future. The fundamental
reason for this growing schism, it seems to me, is that photojournalism
is unlikely ever to fit into the business plan that Corbis has for the
licensing of photography. Essentially their approach is to "productize"
photography, and to introduce into photography syndication the established
business principals that work for, let's say, the beverage industry.
Corbis executives constantly use MBA phrases such as "economies
of scale" and "market penetration." In and of itself
this isn't a bad thing if it can raise the volume of sales and increase
the earning power of each image. At least in theory this should work
for those genres of photography that in fact are products, such as commercial
stock and celebrity portraiture. Although demanding a high degree of
creativity to be executed well, these images are specifically designed
to meet the needs of clearly identified markets. Indeed one of the services
the commercial shooter needs from an agency is market research that
will allow him or her to predict the way that the market will trend
in six months or a year.
is a very different beast, with a very different market. It has been
said that it provides a lousy living but a great life, and it is something
that nobody in their right mind takes up to make even a tiny fortune.
What fuels photojournalists and keeps them working year after year in
what are often the worst employment conditions in the world (e.g. being
shot at) is a mixture of passion and curiosity. What they need from
their agencies is an equal amount of both qualities, and for many years
this is exactly what they got. If you look at the careers of agency
legends such as Howard Chapnick, Hubert Henrotte, Goksin Sipahiaglou,
JP and Eliane Laffont, Bob Pledge, Jennifer Coley, or Magnum's Jimmy
Fox, passion is the common denominator. Nobody would ever describe any
one of them as corporate functionaries. Maybe they weren't all the best
business people, and maybe the serious deterioration of the market for
this work got to be too much for them, but what they did extremely well
was to provide a home for their photographers. They gave support and
insight, encouragement through the dark times, and lots of "attaboys"
during the good. They also were known to scream at you when you screwed
up, but even this was usually as the result of caring for the craft.
It is all of these characteristics that Corbis' reorganization plan
lacks, and without them it seems unlikely to work especially in a country
as naturally passionate and volatile as France. In a recent statement,
Henri Cartier-Bresson expressed his attitude towards the situation when
am scandalized by the casualness and the cruelty of the massive firing
by Corbis of 42 Sygma photographers. The compilation of an image bank,
as well stocked as it might be, will never match the work of an author.
On one side, it is a machine; on the other it is a living and sensitive
being. Corbis offers no choice."
Peter Howe is a former picture editor for the New York Times and Director of Photography for LIFE magazine. From 1998 until 2000, he was a consultant and Vice President for photography and creative services for Corbis.
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