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Shutdown - Inside The Corbis Paris Commune

6 February 2002 - EPUK

News production at Corbis, the photo agency owned by Bill Gates, has been thrown into chaos by a strike at the Paris headquarters of Corbis-Sygma, the agency’s main news gathering operation.

The strike, which revolves around negotiations concerning Corbis’ sacking of Sygma’s entire complement of 42 staff photographers and a large number of support and production staff, began last week, and also involves Corbis’ other two French agency acquisitions, Kipa and Tempsport. The total number of jobs under threat is believed to be up to 118 – almost half of the employees.

While, as ever, reports of events within Corbis-Sygma are clouded by claim, counter-claim and mutual recrimination, one fact at least is not in dispute: by Corbis’ own admission, all daily news production in their Paris offices has now ceased.

Franck Perrier, General Manager of Corbis France, is booed by staff while entering the room where negotiations are being held.

The strike began on Monday January 28, after photographers accused Corbis management of negotiating in bad faith. Photographers accused the company of making a “deliberate attempt to overstep French law relating to photographers rights”, a charge Corbis rejects, and in both subsequent internal mailings to staff and reply to EPUK enquiries stressed its commitment to “follow the letter of French labour law”.

The incident which sparked the strike appears to have been the alleged assertion by a lawyer representing Corbis that sacked photographers could have their archives returned, but without slide mounts and protective sleeves. One photographer points out that, because of Sygma’s archival system, such unmounted slides are virtually worthless: “a slide without its original mount is unusable because its identification number that is linked to a full caption”. Photographers claim that when Corbis France General Manager Franck Perrier was confronted over the matter the following day in front of agency staff he admitted what the lawyer had said, but was quick to stress that he disagreed with him.

When questioned by e-mail, however, a Corbis spokesman dismissed the entire incident as “a rumour”, and went on to say: “In absolutely no instance would Corbis Sygma “dismantle” photographers’ photographs, slides or other material. When returned, they will contain all the mounts and information.”

The row over the condition of returned archives – a long standing demand of Sygma photographers – is only the latest in the long running confrontation between Corbis-Sygma photographers and management. Photographers had already accused the company of transferring some 800,000 digital files from Paris to company headquarters in Seattle without photographers consent, or even prior knowledge – a move characterised this week by one Sygma photographer as “the first digital hold-up of the century”.

On January 29, in an attempt to spread news of the strike within the Corbis organisation, French photographers posted photographs of the situation to staff world-wide on the company’s internal e-mail system. Within minutes a company systems administrator apparently deleted the mail from the server and posted instructions that staff should not open the photographers’ message because it allegedly contained a virus, an extraordinary claim since the message identifiably came from the Corbis Paris office.

By then, however, it was too late. The news was out, and as Corbis began to receive enquiries from staff about what was really going on in Paris, they were forced to begin issuing special internal bulletins putting their side of the story.

Intriguingly, one of the enquirers speculated about Corbis Paris that “it seems like their situation may be even worse than ours”. Since the poster asked to remain anonymous, that only left other readers to wonder what else was going wrong, and where.

Zero points: staff mark Corbis France General Manager Franck Perrier down on his negotiating skills.

With their attempt to use the Corbis internal mail system to put their case frustrated, the strikers have now taken a broader approach, opening a web-site with photographs and reports from the scene in Paris. Of course, it would be very easy for a Corbis technician to block access to the strikers’ web-site from company computers, so Bellevue cybercafes may enjoy an unexpected boost in business over the next few days.

Corbis claim that the strike does not alter their plans, and stress that the Paris strikers are “not part of the worker’s committee – the official committee which represents workers’ interests”. But surely this is mere spin. The “worker’s committee” which they refer to is in fact the Committee d’Entreprise which is the joint management/workers body discussing their differences. With an estimated 93% of the Paris staff on strike, it’s clear that the only “worker’s committee” which counts is the photographers’ strike committee which is organising the current action.

As news of the latest developments spread, photographers and editors in the French photographic community were quick to condemn Corbis. Most dramatic was the intervention of Magnum co-founder and grand old man of French photojournalism Henri Cartier-Bresson. In a written statement he proclaimed: “I am scandalised 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 equal 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.”

A message of support for the strikers from Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Cartier-Bresson has long been known to disapprove of Corbis. In June 1999 a Magnum meeting in London rejected approaches from Corbis – and Getty Images – to handle Magnum’s image distribution. During discussions Cartier-Bresson reportedly “kept shaking his head”. That, however, was behind closed doors. For the famously reclusive eminence grise of French photojournalism to now make such a damning – and public – indictment of Corbis marks yet another public relations disaster in the short but remarkably eventful history of the US company’s French adventures.

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