Sex, diseases, grief and human dramas of any kind. No issue is taboo for Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani. Jesper Storgaard Jensen spoke to him about provocations, taboos and why…
“When I start a new project where creativity is involved, I don’t have any guarantees whatsoever as to how it will turn out. I don’t want to have that certainty. Because creativity means entering unchartered territory. And when you speak about creativity you shouldn’t look for consensus, because that simply leads to mediocrity. So…listen to the marketing guys and then go in the complete opposite direction.”
Oliviero Toscani looks relaxed, and it actually seems as though the more he’s able to provoke his surroundings, the better he feels. He speaks of his creative process with such confidence that it’s difficult not to believe every single word that comes out of his mouth. Many of us will remember several of his Benetton advertisements: the young priest and the nun kissing, the black horse mounting the white horse, the words “H.I.V. positive” printed on a buttock, a soldier’s blood-drenched and bullet- ridden clothes, and so on. Many of these images are now world patrimony of the most successful contemporary photography.
JJ: But how were these images actually conceived. Through an intellectual calculation or prompted by genuine sentiment with intuition?
OT:I would say both. The rational part 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. Then you also have the emotional process. Take for example the photos that provoke certain people from a religious point of view. They do that due to Catholic dogmas. But why should I accept a religious dogma if I disagree? So, for me, going against these dogmas through my images has almost been an act of duty (laughing).
JJ: Today, what mission should modern photography have?
OT: As said before, to me photography is all about communication. Actually, I believe that the only objective photographic art should have is to describe human conditions. That was exactly what I did during the Benetton years. We made the product disappear, because I wanted to focus on social issues.