When nerves snap at Sygma

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

French photographic agency Sygma is respected world-wide for the quality of its images and the professionalism of its photographers. But staff at the agency say its very existence is under threat from tough new working rules imposed by Sygma’s latest owner, Bill Gates.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates has a well-earned reputation for being stubborn. But then so do French photographers, especially ones who have worked in war zones, in totalitarian countries and in the white-knuckled scrums of Europe's fashion shows.

The question is: Who will win the battle of wills currently taking place at Gates's Corbis Sygma news photography agency - a battle that highlights a conflict between US corporate culture and a profession built on a mix of art and adrenaline?

The 191 employees of the Paris-based agency are under no illusions. Told two months ago that half of them are to be sacked - including the 42 photographers, who have been asked to set up independent companies to work as "freelancers" for the company - they have been on strike since early last week, not for their jobs, but for a "decent" severance package.

The administrative staff of Corbis Sygma will know who is to be let go this week.

Several of the photographers have already left, fed up with what they see as US business ruthlessness riding roughshod over their craft.

"Bill Gates, gravedigger of photojournalism" and "No to a photo agency without photographers" read some of the slogans stuck to the outside of the agency's headquarters in east Paris.

"We're making news, not covering it," says one striking photographer.

But the management is sticking to its guns, backed to the hilt by Corbis head office in the US city of Seattle, where Gates lives.

The Microsoft billionaire, who reportedly got the idea of building a company that would sell digital photos and art through the internet after installing flat screens in his mansion to display such images, wants the French subsidiary to do things his way.

In particular, he wants to turn around a loss that totalled EUR9.91 million in 2000 on a turnover of EUR17.5 million.

That means no more contracts sealed with a handshake and a verbal understanding, new freelance terms for photographers rather than expensive fixed employee costs, the archive use of pictures, and wresting more copyright control over the photos away from the photographers so the images can be altered or sold to clients for use on, say, greeting cards.

These are terms widely accepted in US companies, including Corbis's much-bigger rival, Getty Images.

Inside the agency's offices - where managers are refusing to comment - an email from Corbis Worldwide is tacked up: "A restructuring is always painful, but we are confident the course we are taking will ultimately prove best for the company."

But for the French photographers, it is not just a question of money or salary - it is about the integrity of their profession and recognition of their proprietary rights over what they have sometimes risked their lives doing. And French law has, in the past, been largely favourable to creators of intellectual property "products" against companies claiming a licence to them.

The face-off could mean Corbis Sygma, which Gates formed when he bought the respected Sygma agency in June 1999, will lose its prime attribute: experienced photojournalists whose high-quality pictures of current events have graced the pages of many magazines, such as Time and Fortune.

Since 1973, Sygma photographers have covered every major conflict and newsworthy event, making it a logical addition to the stable of speciality sport, art and celebrity agencies Corbis acquired in a buying spree in the 1990s.

As one employee says: "Sygma is dead".

Another was more measured. "We're concerned, but still determined," he says. It is a battle, though, that seems to be drawing to an unsatisfactory end for all involved.

In the meantime, the employees are going on with their protests: one day, sticking paper zeroes to their clothes to mock management grading systems, another day, blowing referees' whistles and displaying soccer red cards.

Twenty of the photographers have even posed nude, holding their press cards in front of their groins for a book they say will be called "Corbis photographers stripped bare".

January 2002

© Agence France Presse

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