"My advertising photography
doesn’t sell products, but rather
an attitude to life and a mindset. "
in a conversation
with Oliviero Toscani
Mr Toscani, as a photographer, you have shaped various company profiles, such as that of Benetton, to pick the most controversial project of your career. You will soon be the protagonist of a television documentary yourself. Is your own image important to you?
If I’d ever worried about that, my life would have been very different. I don’t care about my image. I’m the only thing in my life that I measure myself against.
What do advertising strategies such as ‘brand yourself’ or ‘the person as a brand’ say to you?
Once again, I don’t do anything for reasons of image or out of strategic concerns. Many people still haven’t accepted me. So stop peddling this drivel. I’m certainly not looking for any form of consensus.
I’ve discussed the Benetton campaign for the past four years with a friend: should advertising depict people dying of AIDS?
Please don’t ask me – but ask yourself. Establish your own morals. My motives in the context of a brand would just be another excuse for your debate to not deal with the actual content.
How far should advertising go just to sell a couple of jumpers?
This is a misleading question. Companies have always done everything they can to set their products apart. When George Clooney advertises coffee, he’s also selling a moral – an aesthetic, a world view. And this state of affairs has long been accepted by everyone. When it comes to communication, everything is advertising now.
A company has an aim. So does the Church, every bank and anyone who snaps a holiday photo. This is the way for art to achieve the highest level of communication with the most sophisticated form of expression. And every form of communication is influenced by power. The church advertises with God, virginity and resurrection, and has commissioned artists to design its campaigns. Artists were given money for propaganda. Mozart set the power of kings to music – that’s advertising.
When collectors support young artists over many years without censoring their work, aren’t they creating a sense of freedom for art?
Where does that even happen, please? Artists who rely on that because they can’t pay their rent otherwise are probably not very good in the first place. For patrons, art is a way to pander to their own egos. Modern firms do the same. Advertising that uses artists or works of art is the modern-day continuation of a strategy that the church used to use: advertising with art.
So you don’t think there’s a dividing line between art and advertising?
Art is advertising. It’s not always such a clear-cut case the other way round.
Are you an artist?
Of course. And I work for the advertising world – which is very interesting. We are conditioned by systems. Open a newspaper. On the left-hand page you’ll read reports about people dying in the Gaza Strip, and on the right-hand page you’ll see an advertisement by Mercedes. Both pages belong to this era, to this society.
When you depicted an anorexic woman, you shifted the image of a sad reality into another context. Why are you even talking to me about this?
It wasn’t even advertised in Germany. But everyone saw it. Media hype. Creating the right image at the right time is one of the objectives of art.
So if you don’t watch television, read books or listen to music, how do you even know what’s contemporary?
Ha! That’s true. I’m Kaspar Hauser. I don’t need any external inspiration to be able to work. I remain pure. After all, you don’t have to be a junkie to work with drug addicts.
A Kaspar Hauser who certainly has a very good understanding of reality. Mr Toscani, you’ve just applied for the word ‘Mafia’ to be a registered trademark. Why?
A matter of pure chance. I helped to establish a Mafia museum in Salemi in Sicily and, in the course of my research, I noticed that ‘Mafia’ was not a protected trademark: Mediterranean Association for International Affairs – seeing the term in its entirety like this is hair raising in itself. But I’ve no idea what I’ll do with it yet.
Did you have contact with the Mafia?
But of course. The first time was in 1969. As a young photographer, I did a report in Sicily about the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Mafia. It does of course exist. Images from that report were published and I received my first death threats. I’m still alive.