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Fatal Crash Leaves Celebrity Photo Agencies Damaged

By Anne Swardson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 4, 1997; Page A23

PARIS, Sept. 3—The photo agencies that make a living exposing the lives of celebrities closed ranks today to defend seven of their employees who were placed under investigation by police Tuesday in the death of Princess Diana and two others.

Several of the photographers vehemently denied they were near the Mercedes in which Diana was riding when it crashed or that they interfered with police as the princess lay dying in a Paris highway tunnel early Sunday. One said he took her pulse and told her help was coming; another said he had not followed the Mercedes but merely came across it on his way home.

The agencies generally declined to offer detailed accounts of the accident or the events that preceded and followed it; they also refused to release photos of the journalists under investigation. But the image of these massive agencies that snap the glamorous and the grotesque for sale to willing publishers seemed likely to be tarnished whether the photographers are ultimately cleared or not.

The way Diana died "has not only damaged the celebrity agencies, it has damaged the entire business," said Francois Hebel, Paris director of Magnum, a photo agency that was not involved in the incident.

More voices called today for the establishment of a code of conduct for journalists, in the words of a newspaper article by French rock singer Johnny Halladay, to "redefine . . . the border between freedom of the press, which I respect, and the right to come and go in peace." On Tuesday, Culture Minister Catherine Trautmann urged discussion of an international code of privacy protection.

France's privacy laws are among the strictest in the world -- taking pictures of someone in a car invades that person's privacy, for instance -- although those laws did not stop the car chase along a riverside highway that ended with the deaths of Diana, her companion, Dodi Fayed, and the driver of the Mercedes S-280 in which they were riding after eating dinner at the Ritz Hotel.

Today, lawyers and advocates for the agency photographers reiterated assertions that the seven were being used as scapegoats and that the real culprit was the Mercedes driver, Henri Paul, who prosecutors say had more than three times the legal limit of alcohol in his bloodstream.

"The fact of following a car has never led to involuntary homicide to my knowledge, especially when the driver didn't know what he was doing," said Jean-Marc Coblence, lawyer for two of the photographers and a motorcycle driver employed by one of the agencies. All seven were placed under investigation for involuntary homicide as well as for failing to aid the victims of an accident -- a step that could lead to criminal charges.

Paul had drunk the equivalent of nine alcoholic drinks, experts have calculated. A French radio station aired an interview today with a private chauffeur who was at the Ritz that night and said Paul was drunk. "Everybody knew when he wasn't working he drank," said the chauffeur, whose voice was disguised. Paul was unexpectedly called in to work that night as part of a plan to divert photographers from Diana and Fayed with a decoy car, and the chauffeur said he heard Paul taunting photographers that they would not be able to catch him.

Romuald Rat, a photographer for the Gamma press agency, said in an interview tonight on France 2 television that he had not joined the chase of Diana's car but had followed along behind. When he came upon the accident, he said, he got off his motorcycle and ran to the Mercedes, hearing someone behind him say, "I've called for the firemen" -- the general term for French emergency medical services.

Rat said he saw Diana in the back seat of the car, "seated, with her back to me. I told her, in English, stay calm, that I was there, that firemen were coming." He did not say, or the network did not broadcast, previous assertions by Gamma management that he took her pulse. He did not take pictures then, he said, because "it was not a moment to take photos."

After medical assistance arrived, Rat said, "I again took up my work as a journalist and took pictures of the car from a very wide angle."

Rat is one of the two photographers sanctioned most severely by the magistrate investigating the crash, Herve Stephan. Rat and Christian Martinez of the Angeli photo agency were required to post bail of $16,000 and must stay in France and not work as journalists until the case is resolved. The other five were released without bail, either freely or conditionally.

It came as no surprise to anyone in the photo agency business here that some cameramen trailing the Mercedes seemed determined to capture an exclusive image of Diana and Fayed. The major photo services are facing a new world of competition and pressure unknown even a decade ago. New agencies are taking business away; competition from other services is increasing, and demand is at a fever pitch for the most difficult, most invasive and thus most lucrative celebrity shots.

"The market has increased tremendously in terms of money, and because of the money the business has organized much more," Magnum director Hebel said. "There's a lot of money to be gotten, and they are ready to get it at any cost."

A photo of Diana, of course, was potentially the most valuable of all, and a small photo agency acknowledged today that it had initially sold some pictures of Diana as she lay trapped in the car, then withdrew them after she died. Laurent Sola, head of LS Presse, told Europe 1 radio and France 2 television that two photographers from his agency took pictures at the crash site and fled before police could take them into custody.

Sola said he had commitments from publications in France, Germany and the United States to buy the pictures but that he canceled the sales after he learned of Diana's death and before the pictures were delivered. Even so, he said, publications "keep calling and asking for the photos." Sola said he was held for police questioning overnight and has turned all relevant film over to authorities. He would not name the photographers who took the pictures.

The Sipa agency said today it had sold what it called the last photos taken of Diana and Fayed alive as they left the Ritz. The Cologne-based newspaper Express said it had purchased similar pictures from the Pandis agency in Paris, the Reuter news service reported.

Employers of the photographers who were released Tuesday included three major photo agencies -- Gamma, Sygma and Sipa -- that sell between $16 million and $30 million worth of photos each year. Other photographers were associated with the specialized celebrity agencies Stills and Angeli, and one was a freelancer. The seventh man seized by police is a motorcycle driver for Gamma. Like most celebrity photographers, those involved in the incident spend more time taking pictures of famous people walking in and out of buildings than they do stalking unsuspecting stars at play.

Serge Arnal, for instance, "is a classic celebrity photographer," said Bruno Klein, head of the Stills agency for which Arnal works. "He covers Cannes and Deauville [film festivals]. Most recently, he covered the pope" when John Paul II visited Paris last month.

Most of them also are employees, not freelancers. These days, as the business has become more corporate, photographers have transformed themselves from roving cowboy freelancers to employees of one agency.

In Paris, they are likely to use motorcycles for transportation simply because they are best for darting through traffic. Motorcycle drivers here pay little attention to traffic laws, zipping through lanes of cars, swerving back and forth on streets and often roaring up onto sidewalks if they are clear and roadways are crowded.

In front of the headquarters of the Sygma agency near the Arc de Triomphe today, eight powerful-looking motorcycles were parked, all fitted with heavy plastic carrying cases. No one inside was talking to reporters today.

Photo service officials and photographers point out that their agencies merely provide what magazines and other media demand. They noted that such publications as Paris-Match, a huge consumer of agency photos, are much more interested in people and less in traditional news than they once were. "The big magazines have become much more celebrity-oriented," Goksin Sipahioglu, founder of Sipa, told the newspaper Liberation. "They can't carry a report on Algeria or Chechnya each week."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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