While still in its infancy, Haytham Pictures has ambitious plans: to renew the sense of trust between photographer and agency. Laurence Butet-Roch speaks to its founders
At a time when established photo agencies are struggling to keep their heads above water, the decision to create a new one can seem reckless, and Christian Sauvan-Magnet, one of the founders of Haytham Pictures, knows this. “You’ve come to ask why we’re such fools?” he asks, amused, as a greeting. The answer could be “because we’re hopeless romantics, in love with photojournalism”. Before launching Haytham Pictures, Sauvan-Magnet spent years developing and installing image management software for photo agencies. In 2007, he launched his own company, FreeForPress, which allowed corporations to distribute, for a fee, their images to journalists. Yet, Sauvan-Magnet felt he needed to step out from behind the scenes and do more to support photojournalism, especially as the world continued to be deeply affected by the 9/11 attacks, even 10 years later. His first attempt was with an agency called Le Desk, which lasted a year. He then partnered with Gilles Collignon to launch Haytham, named after an Arab scientist who studied optics in the 11th century. Collignon shares his passion for photojournalism, which he defines in straightforward terms: “Witness. Shoot. Caption. Show. Inform. That is the essence. That is our goal.”
However daring they may be, they are not senseless. Their decisions have been strategic. They have opted for a strand of photojournalism that is not quite news and not quite long-term documentary projects. “We have chosen to stand on the periphery of news photography because we cannot compete with Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Reuters and Getty,” says Collignon, who used to be a picture editor at AP. Nor are they revolutionaries. “We do not think that we’re in the midst of a revolution,” says Sauvan-Magnet. “Take the car: we can make it electric, bigger or smaller, but it is still a motor with four wheels. The same is true of photography. Even with billions of pixels, a camera is still about optics, aperture and speed.”
Collignon is quick to agree before adding that there is room for innovation in one specific aspect: devising a working economic model. One of Haytham’s ideas in this respect is to reverse the pricing method. Rather than charge for print rights and then extend those to web or electronic devices, they want to put web usage first. After all, for many newspapers and magazines, that is where the highest traffic lies. “Publications are facing the same dire situation as photo agencies, so it is the perfect moment to try new things, even if it fails. Either we work together or we all break our necks,” says Collignon.
Like Noor before it, Haytham was born out of the annual Visa pour l’Image festival in Perpignan last year, where they met for discussions with several photographers. “Many of them complained about the lack of commitment of the larger companies, especially when they are not staffers. The wires will partner with them on a story- by-story basis. It is not their entire body of work that is being promoted,” say Haytham’s founders.
One of these photographers was Benjamin Petit, a French shooter based in New York: “I approached agencies of all size until I realised I was looking for a smaller structure, rather than a big one. I wanted to be represented like in the old days, when agents took the time to know the photographers on a personal level. I wanted to grow and evolve. To do so, I needed to be able to engage in meaningful exchanges.”
Such statements don’t surprise Collignon. “Industrial-size businesses breed industrial-style relationships. In contrast, we want to go back to how photo agencies were in the so-called Golden Age – built on strong ties between the photographer and his or her editor. The agent believes in the talent of his protégé, who in return trusts him to edit the story,” he adds, convinced that not only is there room for bite-size agencies, but that there is a need for them. “If we are not careful, in 10 years’ time the photo industry could become much like the computer world is now – run by just a few giants. In that case, smaller stories, those that yield less profit, would no longer be seen. In other words, entire parts of our planet would stay in the dark.”
Even in this day and age, where connecting with photo editors is made easier via social media, for instance, photographers continue to seek representation. Stefania Mizara, a Greek photojournalist, did not expect to join an agency until her country’s recent economic downfall. “Until now, I was working with the national press, especially on weekend supplements. There was plenty of work for me. The crisis has transformed the media industry, which can no longer afford photographers. On the other hand, it has also focused international attention on Greece. As a photographer, it is an opportunity not to be missed. But making the right contacts takes time. An agency frees you from that, so you can focus on your work.”
In choosing with whom to collaborate, she sought partners that shared her philosophy. Haytham’s commitment to allow peripheral stories to emerge resonated with her. “Nowadays, news moves from one topic to another so fast – it is more about what is trending than thorough analysis. And since there are fewer people on the ground, magazines are asking you to illustrate a story that they have imagined in their offices, miles away from the field. I wish it was the other way around.”
One benefit of joining an agency is to receive specialist guidance and support. “Photography is a lonely field,” acknowledges Collignon. “A photographer in front of his computer is like an author in front of a blank page. Where do you start when you have hundreds and hundreds of pictures to sift through?” Sylvain Leser, who has been working for several years on a project on homelessness in France – a growing trend in the ongoing economic crisis – learned the hard way. Despite his unique, vast and compassionate production, he has had few publications in the past few years. But ever since he brought thousands of his images over to Haytham, he has been working with the agency on narrowing his selection and creating captions that correspond to the industry’s standards. “I never had time to create packages catered to a specific media,” he admits.
Sauvan-Magnet spends time with the photographers, explaining his decisions. “The wires do not do that. They just say, ‘I’ll buy these four or five images,’ without giving specific reasons. How is one supposed to learn from that?” The members of the Kairos collective, born this year out of the EMI-CFD – a private media school in Paris – sought such a relationship, especially since they are just starting out in the business. “We are no longer alone. We have a support system, access to people who have vast industry experience and can guide us,” says Simon Lambert, a founding member.
This support system also extends to the field, ensuring the photographers are prepared and have thought through their photo essays – the angle, the motives, the audience. “We want to make sure they leave with a clear idea of what they want to accomplish, and how to do so safely and effectively. We are not here to tell them not to do a story they feel is important,” says Sauvan-Magnet.
Yet the agency realises all too well that it is impossible to account for every eventuality, especially in a conflict zone. On 07 June, Edouard Elias, a 22-year-old French photographer and one of Haytham’s most talented recruits, disappeared in Syria while on assignment for Europe 1. After a month’s silence – “to let negotiators do their job”, explains Collignon – Haytham joined forces with Reporters Without Borders, Europe 1 and the French charity SOS Racisme to form a support committee calling for Elias’s release, and the release of all journalists, as well as that of all witnesses working within the country.
“It was time to create a body that would channel all the information; allow family, friends and colleagues to meet; reassert our commitment to defending the freedom of a press that is non-militant; and, hopefully, if we’re loud enough, to reach Edouard and Didier François, the journalist who was captured with him, and give them courage,” explains the photo agency’s president. “We are unsure of the results, but we will not back down. We will not abandon our photographer,” he adds.
Barely a year old, Haytham carries itself like a veteran.