In Conversation: Oliviero Toscani


Sex, disease, war, religion, AIDS and racial injustice. No issue was taboo for the legendary Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani when it came to advertising the Benetton brand. Jesper Storgaard Jensen spoke to the photographer who decided to use his camera as an instrument for political and social change.

Toscani looks relaxed. In his studio, there’s a poster-sized, black-and-white photo of his late friend, Andy Warhol. “I used him as a model several times, and he usually wanted to be paid,” he says with a smile. Before our interview starts, he drags me out on to the balcony of his studio in a tiny Tuscan village. The valley rolls out before us, glowing with the colours of autumn. Not far from where we stand you can see the farmhouse where Toscani lives with his Norwegian wife. It’s the same place where he produces wine and olive oil, and breeds horses.

However, his apparently relaxed state of mind is in stark contrast to his verbal intensity, as he speaks to me of his creative process with such confidence that it’s difficult not to believe every word he says, without question. But it was his images for the Italian fashion company Benetton which spoke even louder throughout the 1980s and 1990s, making a solid case for Toscani’s photographic philosophy. The young priest and the nun kissing, the black horse mounting the white horse, the words “H.I.V. POSITIVE” printed on a naked buttock, the black woman breastfeeding a white baby, the coloured condoms and a soldier’s blood-drenched and bullet-riddled clothes. Images which gained Toscani global fame and notoriety across more than 120 countries. These were not images usually used to sell brightly-coloured knitwear.

“When I met Luciano Benetton in 1982″ says Toscani “I asked him: ‘Are you willing to do a publicity campaign that will become the most famous in the world?’ When I told him about my idea, he had some doubts; especially because many of the people around him – his fiancée at the time, many of the Benetton managers, the marketing staff, his children – were against this campaign. They were all very embarrassed by my photos as the campaign went on. But in the end Luciano Benetton was very courageous. He gave me total freedom. That was fantastic.”

When you look today at those ground-breaking advertising images, what really strikes you is that there is no sign of any product. Not even a hint or suggestion about what’s for sale. The same strategy is on display in one of Toscani’s, hotly-debated campaigns for the Italian clothing company No-l-ita, in which a gaunt, nude female model suffering from anorexia was photographed to promote the company’s products.

“In the case of Benetton, I really wasn’t interested in the company’s sweaters. I think that the different companies’ products are more or less the same. On the contrary, I think it’s important for a company to show its social intelligence and sensitivity to the society around it. So I started with the issues that interested me and began experimenting. The results showed that this concept worked. In fact, during the 18 years that I worked with Luciano Benetton, the company grew in size 20 times over. I simply took these areas of interest and put them into the advertising campaign. And today I use, whenever possible, the same concept,” he explains. “The rational part of these photos can be expressed in my ‘photographic philosophy’; that is, the most important part of photography as an art is that it must surprise and communicate. This is what it’s all about: communication, communication, communication. Actually, I believe the only objective that art should have is to describe human conditions. Apart from the rational part of the photo, you have, of course, the emotional part of the process. Take, for example, the Roman Catholic religion. It’s based on dogmas and to me it’s been conceived to make us suffer as much as possible. ‘Only in that way we’ll be able to reach paradise.’ But it’s a lie. Who can be certain that the paradise exists? And then all these Catholic dogmas, they are so ‘easy’ – so cowardly inhuman. Why should I accept a dogma if I disagree? All these Catholic priests have been fooling us for years. They should all be thrown in prison for their false propaganda. So, for me, going against these dogmas through my images has almost been an act of duty,” he says, laughing.

Toscani feels that he inherited his photographic eye from his father, Fedele Toscani, who was a photojournalist for Italy’s biggest daily newspaper Corriere della Sera and whose most remembered image was of the recently-executed Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, hanging in a Milan square, taken in 1945. Controversial imagery seems to be an inherited gene for Toscani.

“When I was a kid there was no television. But through my father I knew exactly what was going on. I was on top of contemporary life when I was young. And I still am. I never watch TV; especially not in this country. I’m not a publicity guy. I don’t know the target, the pay-off and all that stuff. I’m what you call an imaginater. I imagine images which socially speaking are part of contemporary life. You could say that I look at real life as one who has been locked up for years and then, when he eventually is set free, he looks at the world with totally new eyes. I’m like that. I’m death curious,” he says.

Toscani’s collaboration with Benetton ended in 2000 but his final Benetton campaign was arguably his most controversial. It portrayed a total of 26 death row prisoners in several different US prisons as they awaited execution. When the parents of one of the prisoners saw the images, an avalanche of protests began across America. Subsequently, the campaign turned many Americans against Benetton, and the retail chain, Sears, Roebuck & Co, cancelled its contract with the Italian clothing company. It was the end of the collaboration between Toscani and Benetton. “It was an incredible experience. Going on to death row is like going into a coffin,” says Toscani. “There’s a strange atmosphere; a mix of sophisticated technology and the Middle Ages. And there’s a strange smell – no, there’s a stink of death. It’s one of those places that the human race should be ashamed of.”

“That campaign was just an excuse used by the press to explain why our collaboration ended. The truth is that my job was becoming too managerial. I had too many people under me and my involvement seemed to be focused on holidays, wages and other practical problems. These things didn’t interest me. So I wanted to leave Benetton, but I also wanted to do this last project. It took three years, due to the bureaucracy and shooting in seven different US states. The very day the campaign was launched, I left Benetton.”

There has definitely been less international focus on Toscani since then. However, he has continued to outrage the Italian public on a regular basis – as in 2007, with his campaign for No-l-ita. “If a company wants to create an advertisement for, let’s say, chocolate, they’ll call a marketing company that will do a so-called analysis below the line – that is, they link the product with, for example, love, sensuality, taste, beauty, health – and in that way they develop the publicity strategy. I don’t work like that. I don’t work on commission. I work with the issues that interest me.”

“I’m interested in anorexia. It’s about wanting to disappear, to become invisible, not wanting to be dependent. There are so many interesting implications in that illness. Initially, I did a short film on anorexia and, later on, I started to do portraits with anorexic people. At a certain point a clothing company contacted me. They wanted me to do a campaign, so I asked them: ‘What do you say? Do you want to be famous overnight with the smallest possible budget?’ They accepted, so we placed a double-page ad in La Repubblica (Italy’s second biggest daily newspaper) and placed 80 big billboards in Rome and 100 in Milan.” Parents’ organisation’s in Italy protested, the Institute for Advertising Self-regulation (IAP) banned the campaign, and once again Toscani had to explain himself. “When we did the ‘H.I.V. Positive’ Benetton ad, no one was talking seriously about HIV and AIDS. But after the ad appeared, a big debate took place worldwide. The same thing happened in the anorexia case. We all know that this illness exists, and the easiest thing is not to address the problem. In fact, creating a controversy around the ad is such an easy reaction because then you don’t have to speak about the real problem. When you look at this skinny girl, you have to take a point of view. And that’s uncomfortable for many. So they get angry. But they get angry with themselves because they don’t have the courage not to be sanctimonious.”

“As far as the accusations of being cynical, I look at it in a different way. I don’t think it’s possible to use human dramas to sell a product. On the contrary, I think you can use a product to focus on certain social problems. Regarding provocations as a way of communicating. Yes, it’s still very important. You need to provoke interest. Provocation is, in my opinion, a new aesthetic dimension.”

Even though Toscani turned 74 this year, has continued to erupt with ideas. In 2011 he travelled all over Italy with a team of young photographers to create Razza Umana (Human Race). It’s a project in which Toscani wanted to mark the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification by portraying the different physiognomies of the Italian people today. The thousands of photos taken – and those yet to be shot – will go into an impressive archive, and some will be shown in exhibitions.

His latest project, however, seems even closer to Toscani’s heart. He’s passionate about Italy’s natural beauty, landscapes and aesthetics in architecture, and wants others to join him in defending it with their cameras. His latest mission is the project Nuovo Paesaggio Italiano (New Italian Landscape). “Three decades ago I was already saying that Italy was getting destroyed. And today that feeling in me is even stronger,” he says. “The Italians are about to lose their sense of beauty. Our landscapes inspired painters such as da Vinci, Raffaello [Raphael], Giorgione and so on, so what has happened? From an architectural point of view I think that the last 60 years in Italy constitute a total disaster. Just look around at all these horrible buildings: no ideas, no creativity, architectural monsters, terrible pistachio-coloured houses, illegal additions, horrific modern churches and so on. We must stop accepting all this ugliness. We have to do something. So we are creating a database of the entire Italian territory where everyone can submit their photos of these monstrosities. I would like to work with schools; teach young people to express themselves in a creative way. For example they could make a short documentary project, How to Live in Society. But I’m afraid it’s not possible. So many things are not possible in this country, where mediocrity and superficiality are the name of the game. I really hate this country, and it irritates me when I say it. Italy has such great potential, but we are about to ruin it all.”

Despite his apparent anger with society, Toscani describes himself as an optimist, who feels both fortunate and privileged. “My generation invented the youth concept. I’ve travelled all over the world. I’ve met interesting people. I was there when the miniskirt started to conquer the world. The only people I envy are Bob Dylan and Muhammad Ali. Listen to Dylan, his words are important.”

When I ask him about what photography means to him he lights up with a great smile. “I believe that being a photographer is the most beautiful work in the world. It’s like writing with light. Just like God himself. I don’t think that other professions have the same beauty. The fact that a photo is static is also its value. It’s not a limitation. Cinema justifies its work: there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. Not in a photo. You value a photo based on your culture, morals, consciousness and ethics. You have to interpret each photo you see and that’s the strength of photography. That’s why a single image, more often than TV or movies, is able to create an uproar in society.

“Remember the photo from Warsaw with the Jewish child with his hands raised in front of a group of armed SS soldiers? Today, 65 years later, it’s still impressive, because it makes us ask: what on earth happened? That’s fantastic. That’s photographic art.”

©Jesper Storgaard Jensen 2016

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