357 WHERE HAVE THE NEWS ASSIGNMENTS GONE?
November 21, 2000
One of the important services an agency provides for editorial shooters is lining up
assignments, or expense guarantees, from magazines on breaking news events. Without such
minimum guarantees it is difficult for many freelancers to justify covering news events.
Many Sygma photographers claim that since Corbis took over the frequency of such
guarantees has fallen dramatically. This affects the overall income of photographers.
There have also been reports that in the future when no magazine is prepared to
underwrite a speculative shoot, Corbis will not independently fund such shoots as Sygma
had in the past,
Charles Borst, Executive News Director of Corbis Sygma in New York says, "We will indeed
provide expenses for future shoots. We heavily subsidized a NYC based Sygma freelancer's
trip to Israel last month, and most recently subsidized Sygma/Newsweek photographer David
Kennerly's trip to Vietnam with President Clinton. If we didn't subsidize travel, we
might as well fold up our tents and just sell rapidly aging stock. I have, and will
continue to subsidize travel whenever there is a potential sale to be made."
He also pointed out that earlier this year Corbis funded a major shoot by Ilkka Vinonen
to examine the state of the world's water. Vimonen traveled to Africa, Asia, India and
Israel for this project.
Borst acknowledged that there has been a falloff in magazine assignments in the past
year, but says this has been industry wide, not just at Sygma. "This has not been a huge
news year. There was little interest in the political campaigns, there was no interest
in Clinton because he was not running, and there was no major story overseas. In
addition, the big news magazines seem to be moving away from covering hard news and more
toward what we call 'infotainment'," Borst said.
Logical as this all seems, photographers can't help but be concerned when one of the few
assignments that does developed is passed to a newspaper, and its staff photographers,
rather than to a Sygma freelancer.
When the election problems in Florida developed Corbis Sygma got a guarantee from TIME to
provide coverage. The only Corbis photographer in Florida at the time was under contract
to Newsweek on a totally different story, and could not shoot for TIME. To lock in
coverage for TIME Borst called the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. In the
past Sygma had picked up pictures from this paper on the Elian Gonzales "rescue," various
Cuban boatlifts and other South Florida and Caribbean-interest stories. It is a common
practice of stock agencies to pick up, and market pictures from newspapers, worldwide,
when an event is over and done with and there is no possible way of having their own
photographer provide coverage.
The Sun-Sentinel had eight photographers spread throughout South Florida covering various
aspects of the story. TIME magazine gave Corbis/Sygma a guarantee for first look at the
pictures these photographers produced. All this is accepted normal procedure for an
assignment agency and is certainly the way Sygma has operated prior to the Corbis take
However, the next step is what has many Sygma photographers hopping mad. Borst wanted
coverage in Tallahassee, but the Sun-Sentinel had pulled their shooter back home after
the first two days. Sources in South Florida tell us this was because the Sun-Sentinel
has put a hold on all travel assignments for the rest of the year for budgetary reasons.
Instead of trying to find a Sygma freelancer who would be willing to fly to Florida to
cover this event, Borst offered to pay for the airfare if the Sun-Sentinel would send one
of their photographer's to Tallahassee. "I had to make a judgment call here, and the
Sun-Sentinel photographer was already familiar with the story and the players, having
covered it from the beginning. I didn't feel I had any better options available at the
time. In 99.9% of scenarios, I'm able to work things out to the benefit or our Sygma
photographers, and those who've known me for a while can attest to that. In this case I
had to make a judgement call on how to provide TIME with the best possible photos on a
developing news story. In the long run, a happy customer will keep coming back, and
99.9% of the time I'll be able to turn that into an opportunity for our shooters. This
scenario was the exception, not the rule," Borst said.
As it turned out the Sun-Sentinel photographer stayed on the assignment for about two
weeks and is being replaced today (Nov. 21st) by Sygma photographer Shaul Schwarz from
New York. Schwarz was in Israel on assignment when the story broke.
The Sun-Sentinel gets expanded coverage for their newspaper, and 50% of any fees
collected by Corbis for the pictures generated. The Sun-Sentinal splits their percentage
with their staff photographers who are also on full salary for the newspaper. The Sygma
photographers get to sit home and wait for the phone to ring.
Some Sygma photographers wonder if anyone is thinking of them, or if the motivation is
entirely one of how Corbis can make the most money. Borst says, "The profit motive is
not necessarily bad. If we keep our customers happy in the long run that will result in
more income for our photographers."
Sygma wants their photographers to focus more toward conceptual and infotainment
subjects, and put less emphasis on breaking news because that is the direction their
customer are taking. They have beefed up their sales force. When a client calls for an
archive photo they try to push them toward an assignment. They believe these are the
things that will generate more assignments and revenue for Sygma photographers.