Pickets on the Web

By Peter Howe

If 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.

Although 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.

The PR war that the photographers and staff are waging via e-mail has all the hallmarks of the French penchant for theater. Phrases such as "CORBIS-SYGMA: THE JOURNEY TO HELL" and "The Management's response is vitriolic!" pepper the communications. The photographs show employees dressed in black lying on the floor of the Corbis offices in a simulated repose of death as Corbis management literally steps over them. There are even a set of photographs showing some of the agency's leading photographers naked except for their cameras and press credentials that are intended to communicate the way that they feel they have been stripped by Corbis. They would be amusing if they weren't so serious.

Once 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, num@corbis.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.

As 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.

Photojournalism 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 he wrote:

"I 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."

Whatever anyone tells you, size is important, and the size that works best for photojournalism is small. It's true that Sygma was in appalling financial shape when Corbis purchased it, and there were many reasons for its depleted state, but one of them wasn't that it was too small. If anything it was already too big. It was known in the field as "the factory", even by its own photographers, and it was a factory that needed constant feeding, often covering events that would never give a return on investment.

I doubt that Corbis wants my advice on how to get out of this mess (or even Cartier-Bresson's), but if they did, it would be to return Sygma and Saba to small independent units run by people obsessive about photojournalism, and then leave them alone. A combination of units such as this empowered by the technology of a global distribution system would be powerful and almost certainly embraced by the photographers. Obviously there would have to be accountability on the part of those running each entity, but it is possible to have this and still allow the freedom that produces the creative and supportive environment that these shooters are lacking now. And given the state of Sygma's business, which in one of Corbis' own communications is described as "in 2000, our sales were down 19% from 1999, and from 1997 to 2000, sales have decreased by 30%" it's not such a big risk. The only other alternative that seems open to the company is to get out of this side of the business completely and concentrate on that which they can do well, the licensing of stock photography to the commercial market.

Of course we know that the scenarios outlined above will never happen, and this bruising strike will probably continue with neither side coming out of it a winner. The best that we can hope for is that there is someone out there with the wit and capital to realize that combining the strengths of the smaller agencies with an effective digital network is the only solution to that which ails photojournalism at the moment. I just hope that Corbis realizes that the actions being taken by their employees in France are not only an expression of anger and frustration, but also, and maybe mostly of fear; fear that their already limited incomes are about to become so small that any photographer with a mortgage or a family will not be able to continue in this profession; fear that they will no longer be able to afford to cover stories that are important to them; fear that they will be marginalized in an image hypermarket where their work commands the lowest prices; most of all fear that nobody really cares.

2002 Peter Howe
Contributing Editor

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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