France's Gamma photo agency on brink of collapse

PARIS (Reuters) - French photo agency Gamma, which rose to fame documenting the May 1968 uprising in Paris and the Vietnam War, said Tuesday its survival was in doubt, the latest victim of a crisis hurting traditional media.

Founded in 1966, Gamma spearheaded a golden generation of French photo-journalists, whose prize-winning images of world events were showcased on the front pages of influential magazine Paris Match and newspapers around the globe.

The managers of Eyedea, a bigger photo publishing group which now owns Gamma, told staff Tuesday that the loss-making division could no longer pay its bills. Other units, like the one producing celebrity photographs, are still profitable.

Gamma employs about 55 staff, of whom 14 are photographers. Emerging shocked from the meeting with managers, employees said they had been given no information on what would happen next and whether Gamma would survive or not.

“They just want to keep the units that cost nothing to run and bring in a lot of money,” said one photographer, who did not wish to give his name because of uncertainties over his job.

“To always do more with less money, it’s the death of photo-journalism. You need a fresh eye, time and perspective to do a good job,” he told Reuters.

Gamma, which made its name sending photographers to hot spots around the world and selling their work to mass circulation newspapers and magazines, has struggled to adapt its business model to the changing media environment.

As competition from the Internet and broadcasters has challenged traditional print media, whose circulation is declining almost everywhere, editors have had less money to spend on images from agencies like Gamma.

The global economic downturn has compounded the problem by hitting advertising revenues, forcing newspapers to cut costs further and, in some cases, to close down.

The financial trouble at Gamma is in sharp contrast to the agency’s early business success, when it rose within a few years from a four-man operation to one of the world’s most prolific photo agencies.

One of its co-founders, Raymond Depardon, went on to a successful solo career as a photographer and film-maker. In his 1981 documentary “Reporters,” he showed Gamma photographers at work during France’s presidential election campaign.

Other Gamma greats include Gilles Caron, who shot an iconic picture of May 1968 student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit, smiling broadly as he confronts riot police. Caron also covered the Vietnam War. He disappeared in Cambodia in 1970.

Gamma’s Francoise Demulder became the first woman photographer to win the prestigious World Press Photo of the Year award in 1976. Her winning shot showed Palestinian refugees fleeing their burning homes during the civil war in Lebanon.

Additional reporting by Sandra Auger, writing by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Ron Askew