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Iconic French photo agency on the brink of collapse

Text by Sarah LEDUC , Apoorva PRASAD

Latest update : 2009-07-31

The survival of iconic French photo agency Gamma is at stake with its parent agency, Eyedea, announcing it is unable to pay its bills. FRANCE 24 examines an agency that has provided the world with some of its most memorable images for over 40 years.

Three professionals from the field of photojournalism reflect on their associations with Gamma and examine its roots, its successes and its troubles.


Hubert Henrotte co-founded Gamma in 1966, before creating Sygma in 1973. He remembers the early "euphoria" of being part of one of the largest French photojournalism agencies.

“Without Depardon and Caron, the agency would not have become what it was. Gilles Caron launched Gamma with the [1967] Six Day War in Israel. He was the first photographer to cross the Sinai and reach the Suez Canal. He shot an 18-page reportage for [French weekly] Paris Match, and took the famous photo of Israeli soldiers sprawled on the Suez Canal. It was followed by a series of scoops and photos that have since become famous.

“The beginnings were euphoric. There were problems of course, but it was based on strong friendships. It was an adventure with friends. Those are wonderful memories.

“Gamma was the first agency to operate on the 50/50 principle. Whether for revenue or for expenses everything was shared, 50% for the photographer and 50% for the agency. All with a principle of absolute integrity. It motivated photographers, especially those with talent. There wasn’t a sale, a publication in the world that didn't benefit the photographer.


“Photojournalists were motivated because they knew they could rely on their agency. They went and covered every subject knowing they were going to get every penny. That's the revolution of French photojournalism, unlike in the United States where journalists went on assignment.

“There was a fierce fight between the three agencies Sipa, Gamma and Magnum. Then, when I went on to create Sygma, it was a fight between twin brothers.


“It’s with great sadness that I see it all collapse”.

George S. Blonsky is a London-based freelance photographer and photojournalist, and occasional contributing photographer for Gamma up until 2005. He has shot events across the world, and recently covered the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games.

“When I first approached Gamma, the thing that drew me to them, apart from the prestige factor was, unlike other editorial teams, they showed great enthusiasm for my work. It was a personal contact I had with the people there, unlike other agencies…

“A few years ago, my mouth would have dropped open at the thought of an agency like Gamma shutting down. But now it’s almost an everyday thing. With the economic situation the way it is… it’s becoming a harder struggle all the time.


“As a photographer I used to be sent away, with a journalist. Now, clients expect packages and they’ll look at [it] and syndicate [it] if they like it.

“I don’t think citizen journalism is a factor… I think there was a big hype earlier, but as Getty has proved when their [citizen journalism division] had to close, it’s a non-entity at the end. I think the way things will go is towards agencies like Demotix, which are very choosy about the work they buy from people - amateurs and professionnals alike. I don’t think it will impact professional photographers that much.”

Jean-François Leroy is the director of Visa pour l'Image, the international festival of photojournalism based in Perpignan, France. He calls the situation a “monumental management mistake”.

“Gamma is in this position today due to a monumental management mistake. The problem with press agencies today is that financiers, who are in control, know nothing. They want to plan everything, but one can’t anticipate events.”


“The digital revolution also has had a role [in the disappearance of French agencies], but digital doesn’t replace an eye. It isn’t enough to have a digital camera to make good photos. Today, there are a lot of great photographers. Laurent Van der Stock, Noel Quidu or others who want to continue and will continue to produce [photos]. They will not stop. This is not the end of the world.

“What they haven’t understood, these businessmen in their gray suits, is that today’s production are tomorrow’s archives.


"Everyone who loves photography feels today betrayed and orphaned."

Visa pour l'Image Peripignan 2009 is a premier photojournalism festival held in Peripignan, France, from August 29 to September 13, 2009.



Date created : 2009-07-29