The fate of a significant portion of the photographic collection of one of the biggest photo news agencies in the world is uncertain. Who owns it today? The judicial administrator? Getty Images France? Locarchives? Visual China Group?
A historical collection that has been adrift for 13 years!
“50 million documents, 800 square meters of archiving space,
7,000 linear meters, more than 10,000 photographers and contributors ”
This is how the company Corbis, of which Bill Gates was the sole owner, introduced the photographic collection of the Sygma press agency acquired in 1999 on YouTube. The video, now unavailable, showed the secure premises of the Locarchives company , where the photographs of the Sygma collection and agencies acquired by Sygma are stored, located in Garney near Dreux in Eure and Loir. This collection includes photos from agencies such as Apis, Universal, Interpress, Spitzer, Kipa, Tempsport, and others.
It was a time when Corbis and Getty, newcomers to the “photography industry,” as it’s called today, vied for photojournalistic archive collections. It was when Gökşin Sipahioglu refused Corbis and Getty’s staggering checks to purchase Sipa press. It was when Hubert Henrotte was duped by Jean-Marc Smadja and had to leave “his agency” with Monique Kouznetzoff. In fact, the fate of the French agency was settled in New York through the mediation of Corbis’s affable president, Steve Davis, and Eliane Laffont of Sygma US, hoping to save Sygma from financial ruin. At the Sygma US office, Eliane and Jean-Pierre Laffont, as well as Jean-Pierre Pappis, were quickly “cooled down” in July 1999 by the “Corbis boys” when they were told they should no longer work on weekends, even when a Kennedy died in a plane crash, and Sygma had photos in newspapers worldwide!
By the following year, the American company had already recognized its failure to manage the press agency’s activities. Corbis France and Corbis-Sygma, the two French subsidiaries of the American company Corbis Inc., had noted their misunderstandings and incompetencies in managing the photographers’ rights. Since its inception, Corbis had mostly purchased “dead archives” including full ownership of the images. However, French law is very different from American law, and Sygma was a thriving agency with a staff of very active photojournalists.
Jean-Marc Smadja, the man who sold Sygma to Corbis, knew what was at stake: “In fact, it quickly became apparent that Corbis was not at all familiar with the press or current events world, and what they were really only interested in were Sygma’s archives, especially since at that time we must have had 4 or 5 million digitized, indexed images available to clients.”
On October 31, 2000, Corbis moved the Sygma headquarters from 74 bis rue Lauriston in the 16th arrondissement of Paris to the new Zeus building at 40 Avenue des Terroirs de France in the Bercy district of Paris 12th arrondissement, at the same time as the management of the French company was changed with the arrival of Martin Ellis and Franck Perier.
Corbis then devised a disengagement strategy. The process is meticulously described in paragraph 3.2 of a document submitted to the “Comité d’entreprise” otherwise known as the Works Council  of Corbis-Sygma and titled: “Partial transfer of some of the activity to another company in the group followed by the initiation of a collective procedure”. It reads: “This would involve the transfer of the distribution and management of Corbis-Sygma archives to Corbis Inc… Once this transfer is completed, Corbis-Sygma would undergo a collective procedure that would effectively protect it from individual lawsuits by its creditors (note: the photographers)… This would inevitably result in the elimination of all jobs and the cessation of the company’s activities.”
And that’s exactly what happened starting November 29, 2001, with a layoff plan that decapitated the agency founded by Hubert Henrotte and former Gamma photographers. Let’s remember that Sygma photographers came from Gamma, and a large portion of them came from older agencies such as Dalmas, Les Reporters Associés, Keystone, APIS, etc. This speaks to the historical significance of the archive compiled by Hubert Henrotte, which was authoritatively managed by Josette Chardans.
In 2001, Corbis-Sygma employed 191 employees. 116 would leave, either through voluntary departures or through the PSE (layoff plan that would affect 42 photographers). In the document submitted to the Works Council, Corbis-Sygma claims to have “40 million photos, of which 800,000 were digitized between 1995 and 2000.” It also notes that “Corbis-Sygma lost 37 MF (around 8 M€, about $14 Million of today’s dollars) in revenue between 1997 and 2000,” while Corbis Corporation had invested 150 MF (33 M€, about 61 Million in today’s US dollars) in current accounts since 1999.
For the management, the problem was the cost and the French complexity of employing photographers and maintaining “news” coverage, which was too expensive. Photographers were thus strongly encouraged either to sign an American law contract with Corbis Inc., or to declare themselves as “self-employed” or under “copyright” in such a way that Corbis no longer bore French social charges .
Furthermore, the announcement of the layoff plan triggered a general staff strike, including photographers. A strike! An unthinkable event in Bill Gates’ world. This widely supported strike symbolized the tension between the staff and “the Americans.”
For nearly ten years, Corbis Sygma then managed the operations of what was formerly the world’s premier magazine press agency in an “Americanized” manner. It was a fitting time. The digital revolution was in full swing, and Sygma’s two competitors, Sipa and Gamma, like all other photo agencies, painfully felt the aftershocks of the advent of the Internet. Recall that during the initial decade of this century, the digital press was envisioned to be free, traditional print was anticipated to become obsolete, and the ways of the “old world” were seen as nearing their end.
Aubert, the scapegoat.
On May 25, 2010, the Paris Commercial Court initiated a bankruptcy proceeding for the company Corbis-Sygma. Corbis did not request a recovery plan. The aim was to liquidate Corbis Sygma as quickly as possible. The court then appointed Stephane Gorrias from SCP BTSG as the official bankruptcy trustee.
In a statement to the AFP, Corbis management justified its bankruptcy filing due to a judgment from April 8, 2010, which required them to pay €1,542,375 to Dominique Aubert, a photographer who worked for Sygma from 1983 to 1995, and whose originals photographs were not returned. The timing was on the eve of the Pentecost 4-day holiday break. It was carefully chosen to minimize global press coverage, especially given that this company was owned by Bill Gates himself.
The AFP news was picked up by all concerned media outlets, but very few actually reported on it, as the business of press photography remains somewhat “taboo”. The press release did not mention, and the manager of Corbis-Sygma would also not tell the court that Corbis Inc. had extended a line of credit to its subsidiary, which allowed them to meet their legal obligations. In short, the bankruptcy filing seemed somewhat controversial, and Mr. Hugot, the lawyer for five photojournalists from Sygma , filed a complaint on June 29, 2011, accusing “fraudulent organization of insolvency, misuse of corporate assets, and breach of trust.” This was an effort by the photographers to reclaim their archives since they were under Sygma’s contract and had not chosen to sign with Corbis Inc. The filed complaint ended in a dismissal on November 13, 2013. Yet, the judge told the photographers he did have something to say about the bankruptcy. But Bill Gates is a friend of France, having been received at the Elysée by every president of the French Republic.
On February 8, 2011, in the hall of the commercial court, Mr. Gorrias confirmed that “Corbis wrote a check for 4 million euros to settle all the liabilities.” When I asked, “Who’s paying for the storage of the 7 km ( 4,4 miles) of photos?” He replied, “Corbis! … for an amount of 100,000 euros. But it won’t last.”
In reality, it is lasting, as returning the image and closing the archive is a massive puzzle with many unknowns. Simply put:
1/ The exact number of photographs in Sygma’s photographic collection is unknown. Only estimates exist.
2/ The exact number of photographers who have images in the Sygma archives is unknown.
3/ Photographer contracts varied (employee status, copyright, invoice…).
There were at least 7,000 photographers listed in Sygma’s accounts. Of these, only about a thousand later signed contracts with Corbis Inc.
And the rest? They had a very short period, three months, to request the return of their photos… Given that Sygma’s collaborators lived or had lived all over the world, only a tiny fraction exercised their rights. We’re talking about a massive quantity of photos, including historic documents. Decades of work, thousands of photographers, and millions of news photographs!
What to do with all of this? Mr Gorrias, from what he shared, consulted several institutions, including the BNF (Bibliotheque National de France, the equivalent of the National Archives), which declined, and likely photo agency owners like François Lochon. Mr. Gorrias made a few sparse returns to a small number of photographers, many of whom were either indifferent to their work or uninformed about the fate of their archives. But, inexplicably, Dominique Aubert, who actually asked for his images, still hasn’t managed to see his…
Of the five photographers who challenged the bankruptcy proceedings, only Dominique Aubert remained. The other four didn’t continue, as legal fees are expensive. Dominique Aubert, given his professional journey, was more equipped to continue the fight. To access the 1,200 photo stories he had covered, he even offered to scan his photos at his own expense and then return the originals to Mr. Gorrias! The proposal went unanswered.
Through his lawyer, Mr. Hugot, on May 15, 2020, Dominique Aubert thus sued the Chinese group Unity Glory, a subsidiary of Visual China Group, which later purchased Corbis  and Getty Images, Locarchives, Mr. Gorrias, and the company employing him, demanding restitution and/or access to his archives! This action was deemed valid on January 14, 2022, by the court, but once again, Mr. Gorrias and his co-defendants appealed as if they were trying to buy time. However, on April 5, 2023, the Paris Court of Appeal (Pole 5 – Chamber 1) confirmed the previous judgment, mainly siding with Dominique Aubert!
First question: Will bankruptcy trustee Mr. Gorrias and his co-defendants appeal again? They have until September 20, 2023, to decide.
Second question: Why this surge of energy, this barrage of hearings?
Truthfully, the accused seem to be trying to delay an inevitable moment: admitting that the photographs of Aubert, along with maybe those of thousands of other photographers who hadn’t signed a contract with Corbis Inc., have simply vanished!
As unbelievable as it sounds, considering the storage fees at Locarchives that Mr. Gorrias estimated at €100,000 at the time of the bankruptcy, and given the lack of interest by public collections in this collection, it’s highly possible that the collection was simply discarded or “dumped”!
-  « The Sygma Preservation and Access Initiative »
-  the company Locarchives is now under the name Xelians
- The U.S. doesn’t have a direct equivalent to the French “Comité d’entreprise” (CE). The CE, or Works Council, is a unique French institution that represents employees at the company level and is involved in various aspects of company decision-making, including financial and economic matters. In the U.S., the closest equivalents might be labor unions or employee representative committees, but these entities don’t have the same breadth of involvement or the same statutory powers as the CE in France. U.S. labor unions primarily focus on collective bargaining for wages, working conditions, and benefits, and they may not be present in all companies. Meanwhile, the Comité d’entreprise in France has a broader advisory role and is involved in both social and economic aspects of a company’s operations.
« Information et consultation sur un projet de repostionnement des activités de Corbis-Sygma » – Document remis le 22 novembre 2001 au Comité d’entreprise.
-  Letter to Sygma photographers titled “Legal Framework for Future Relations Regarding the Exploitation of Archives” dated February 11, 2002: “Corbis proposes the conclusion of a contract for the transfer of property rights in accordance with French law subject to French copyright law. The photographer also has the option, if they wish, to enter into a license agreement in accordance with American copyright law and governed by the law of the State of New York.”
-  Dominque Aubert, Derek Hudson, Philippe Ledru, Moshem Milner, and Michel Philippot
-  Letter dated March 15, 2011 from Mr. Gorrias to Hubert Henrotte for the Darolle fund: “J’accuse réception de la revendication dont vous m’ avez saisi et vous indique que vous êtes forclos, la demande en revendication devant être formulée, en application de l’article R. 624- 13 du Code de commerce rendu applicable à la procédure de liquidation judiciaire par l’article R 641-31, dans les 3 mois à compter de la publication du jugement d’ouverture au BODACC.En l’occurrence, vous ne pouviez revendiquer que jusqu ‘ au 23 septembre 2010.”
-  On January 23, 2016, the company UNITY GLORY, a subsidiary of the Chinese group VISUAL CHINA GROUP, acquired the company CORBIS and the distribution rights for the content of the company CORBIS SYGMA represented by the company CORBIS at the date of the transaction; the company GETTY IMAGES was entrusted with the management and supervision of the physical assets as well as their distribution outside of China, and the archiving of its photographic fund was entrusted by the company CORBIS to a company named LOCARCHIVES.
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