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.
JJ: You are known as a professional provocateur, but are all these provocations still necessary in photography?
OT: Oh yes, it’s still very important. You need to provoke interest. Provocation is, in my opinion, a new aesthetic dimension. A new language.
JJ: But are there still taboos left to speak about?
OT: Yes! Sex and death are still international taboos (laughing)!
JJ: You once said, “Advertising is disgusting, but it’s powerful.” Do you really find it disgusting?
OT:Well, first of all you have to define what publicity is. Publicity simply means communication. The Sistine Chapel is publicity for the Catholic church. The publicity is everything that is public, and the commercial publicity is the most efficient and powerful way of communication that exists. It’s an area in which incredible amounts of money are channeled. That’s why I say ‘powerful but disgusting.
JJ: And yet you have been a part of it for many years. How do you, for example, react when people have accused you of cynical use of human dramas to sell products?
OT: Well, 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.
JJ: Can you describe a photographic challenge that was particularly difficult from a technical point of view?
OT:One of the most challenging was doing the Benetton photos in the various American death rows. I could only carry a camera body and one lens with me. At the time only film was used. The big challenge was the lightning, which very often was a sort of neon green, really ugly. But this is a part of the job that I really like: the necessity to adapt to the quality of light in the place where you work. That’s a challenge. If I work in a dark ambience, I don’t try to add light, and I don’t try to make a light ambience darker. I like to be faithful to the natural lighting conditions.
JJ: You work a lot with models—including young people—when you do your shoots. I guess you would need to have certain psychological abilities?
OT: Indeed. You need to get ‘in touch’—mentally speaking—with your models to be able to make them ‘perform’ in the right way. Sometimes you’ll find yourself working with models who have a certain psychological fragility. As regards the young people, you should never give them a compliment if they don’t deserve it. Then it’s important to let them know exactly what kind of photographic project they are taking part in. They should be totally involved, also psychologically speaking.
JJ:I know that you have made the change from film cameras to digital. Do you still use film?
OT: I made that change some ten years ago. I remember that when I started to send digital files to the papers, many of them didn’t even have the equipment to download and open the files. Today, the best digital cameras have a fantastic quality. I haven’t bought film for the past ten years.
JJ: What gear do you use? What’s your favorite ‘tool’?
OT: I use all brands. Today, in my everyday work I use Canon and my favorite tool, as you call it, is the Canon EOS 1Ds MK III. I use Canon because I think they were the first company really to understand the potential of digital and thus to invest in that sector. Sometimes, though, if I have to do a special job, I might also rent different bodies, also of other brands. The most important is not the brand but the quality.
JJ: Have you got a favorite lens?
OT: No, not really. I’m not a fetishist about gear. This is an aspect that is typical for many amateurs. They know everything about cameras, software and lenses. Not me. The less stuff I have, the better.
JJ: In the photographic world you also speak a lot about postproduction. What’s your experience in that field?
OT:Absolutely nothing! All that postproduction stuff has got nothing to do with photography, and it has nothing to do with creativity. Absolutely nothing. It’s only laboratory work. People are wasting a lot of time with all these computer programs. The real creativity is something else. It’s a mind’s game that comes from an idea. Then of course, you have different technologies at your disposal to make minor corrections to the original creative idea. But postproduction in itself doesn’t produce creativity.
Actually, I would say that the postproduction can be like a false friend, because many young people think they are true photo masters just because they have a certain knowledge of Photoshop. But it’s all wrong, because an exaggerated use of Photoshop doesn’t allow you to develop a real creative capacity.
JJ: As regards the new technology, today we speak about cameras with built-in HDR technology and even 3D photography. Where do you think new technology is taking modern photography?
OT: Today we have emails. So I no longer use carrier pigeons (laughing). The problem is not the new technology. The problem is how we use it. The new technology will increase the speed in many processes, but then, on the other side, it will create new problems. I think that each era has its own new technology.
JJ: You speak a lot about the importance of creativity. From where do you get your own creativity?
OT:First of all I never watch TV. Take for example Berlusconi’s (Italy’s prime minister, ed.) three TV channels. They have a cultural level way below mediocrity, which kills all kinds of creativity. I imagine images which socially speaking are a part of contemporary life. I’m what you call an imaginater. I try to stay tuned on what’s going on in society. Yes, I’m actually death curious.
JJ: Throughout the years you have experienced many angry reactions to your commercial photos. Why do you think photography has the capacity to evoke such strong feelings?
OT: It’s simple. 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 and ethics. You have to interpret each photo you see. That’s the strength of photography.
JJ: How is your ‘relationship’ with photography today?
OT: To me being a photographer is the most beautiful work in the world. It’s a bit like writing with light. Just like God himself. It’s amazing how powerful photography can be.
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, that photo is still impressive, because it makes us ask: what on earth happened? That’s fantastic. That’s photographic art.
Product Resources Camera: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III; Lenses: Canon 70-200 f/2.8, 35-70 f/2.8; Lighting: Broncolor 304, Kimera Softbox; Tripod: Manfrotto 004B, D04659.