On February 4, 2002, Bill Gates proudly posed with his wife Melinda on the cover of Newsweek. They “Bet a fortune on Bringing Better Health Care to the World’s Poorest Children”. With the magazine on sale on the other side of the Atlantic, the future of a whole profession – photojournalism – is being wagered; the odds are poor and the consequences dramatic.
Every afternoon members of the strike committee meet staff in the hallway outside the office to discuss the talks held earlier; then everyone is asked to vote to continue the strike for another day.
The Corbis-Sygma agency, the French branch of Corbis, and the personal property of the Microsoft Chairman, is implicated in the heart of the torment. His ambition is to set up the largest photographic database in the world, in competition with the Getty group. Following the fusion of Sygma, Kipa, and Tempsport in 1999, Corbis-Sygma now possesses vast amounts of photographic archives, the fruit of 30 years worldwide acclaimed know-how.
However, it appears that Bill Gates and the Corbis management are greatly mistaken in their assessment of the situation – they thought that by buying the Sygma agency, they would automatically become the owners of the archives. But this is not the case, as French law protects photographers in France, which contrary to the US copyright law, makes the photographers the owners of their images for life.
Two and a half years after the Corbis takeover, Sygma is but a mere shadow of what it used to be. Its huge deficit (some 10 million Euros in 2000 – almost 9 million dollars and as much in 2001) led Corbis-France’s management team to establish, with the backing of the US management, a “plan to downsize” the agency, which involves slashing between 93 and 118 jobs – almost half of the employees. The redundancies affect – other than the 42 photographers employed by the agency – journalists, technicians, sales people, archivists, which make up the invisible part of the iceberg, without whom France’s photojournalism would not have acquired its reputation.
Two months after the decision was announced, in November 2001, the staff has gone on strike. They are angry at management’s refusal to recognise their share of the responsibility for the company’s disastrous situation (they should recognise that the staff have been wronged), and also with the management’s deliberate attempt to overstep French law relating to photographers rights.
The entrances to Corbis’ Paris headquarters festooned with strike posters.
With their backs to the wall, the photographers cannot accept the following proposals made to them:
They have been made redundant with just one choice – they have to set up their own company.
Since the agency was set up 30 years ago, Sygma photographers have always taken on board 50% of the production costs and the risks involved in delivering their assignments.
Corbis proposes that the photographers take upon themselves 100% of the production costs, while the agency maintains the right to accept or refuse the proposed assignments.
In France, this kind of external production pertains to the law on trading companies which means that the photographers would lose their press cards and all the benefits related to their status. They would become mere “suppliers of artistic content” for Corbis without any guarantees.
They would have to renounce their archives handled by a “foreign based company”, without photographers having any say in the matter. This would result in the photographers losing all social coverage by the French Social Security System.
If the photographers refuse either one or both proposals, Corbis has stated that they would “kindly” return the whole stock of archives to the given photographer however, the slide photo-mounts would be removed as well as the protective covering from the negatives!
And so the noble profession of photojournalism is experiencing the most painful moments since its creation. Bill Gates has done his utmost to be considered its patron. On January 29, an internal e-mail was sent from Paris to all Corbis staff worldwide with photos of the strike mood. Almost immediately, the system’s administrator from Bellevue (Corbis head office) sent a mail with the message “DO NOT OPEN” because of a supposed attached “virus”.
And so the staff on strike are repressed, and every attempt is being made to silence them by a man whose international profile means everything to him.
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