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Oliviero Toscani: 'There are no shocking pictures, only shocking reality'

From Rosie Tomkins, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Oliviero Toscani is the photographer behind the notorious Benetton campaigns
  • His ads featured subjects ranging from dying AIDS patients to anorexic models
  • Toscani left Benetton after the controversial campaign featuring death row inmates
  • Pictures expose a reality that most of the time people don't want to see, he says

Watch Revealed with Oliviero Toscani on Wed, 18 Aug, 0830, 1630; Sat, 21 Aug, 0830, 1700, 2030; Sun, 22 Aug, 0530, 1730; Mon, 23 Aug, 0300 (All times GMT)

London, England (CNN) -- The arresting images of Oliviero Toscani catapulted a little-known clothing brand to international status and transformed the role of advertising in modern times.

Responsible for Benetton's infamous campaigns throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Toscani's fusion of social commentary and commerce prompted the world to re-consider the power and purpose of advertising.

Never far from controversy, the acclaimed photographer shot to notoriety with his use of shock images for a series of campaigns that featured subjects ranging from dying AIDS patients to death row inmates.

Often contentious, Toscani's pioneering work has faced government bans and sparked public protests -- something that doesn't seem to put off the seemingly risk-averse Italian.

I don't like to waste my time, I'm looking for something that's new to gain, to live for, to believe in.
--Oliviero Toscani

"There are people who, when they look at a picture, they get angry at it. But they should get angry at themselves for not having the courage to look into the problem," Toscani told CNN.

"There isn't such a thing as a shocking picture," he continues, "there is shocking reality that is being reproduced through photography to the people who aren't there."

Toscani talked to CNN's Revealed about shocking images, the power of photography and his latest project.

CNN: What does Oliviero Toscani represent?

Oliviero Toscani: Sometimes I'm very embarrassed to say that, but I'm the luckiest, most privileged person I've met.

I'm lucky for many reasons; to belong to a generation where there was no war, Beatles and Rolling Stones, traveling around and mini skirts, to be born to a family who were pretty liberal. I'm also lucky because I've got a very selective memory, I don't remember things I don't like, only things that are good.

Video: Revealed: Oliviero Toscani
Video: Tackling the Middle East issue
Video: Oliverio Toscani at home
Pictures put you in front of a reality that most of the times you don't want to see, don't want to know about, don't want to get involved.
--Oliviero Toscani
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I accept the fact that I'm lucky, but you have to provoke luck, you have to jump from the third floor, get up and then people will say you've been lucky --yeah but I did jump.

CNN: What is the theme to your work?

OT: Everything is conditioned by my curiosity, because nothing ever really gets finished. I'm still here getting angry at things -- you have to live everyday in a full way, you have to believe that there is nothing else in life. You have to be generous, you have to give, don't expect to get anything back but you get a lot back, if you give a lot.

You have to believe in good rhythm, to believe it's possible and to try and not fall apart if something goes wrong -- but belong to the search of quality all the time. It's all about being aware of being alive, I don't like to waste my time, I'm looking for something that's new to gain, to live for, to believe in.

CNN: What can photography be or do in society?

OT: Photography is the most actual expression of art because the world is what we see in images. More than 90 percent of what we know is because we've seen images. People see through somebody else's eyes today, so there is a big responsibility -- an image can be stronger than an army.

We see children throwing stones against tanks and everyone thinks it's a shocking picture; there isn't such a thing as a shocking picture, there is shocking reality that is being reproduced through photography to the people who aren't there.

Now, historic human memory is through imagery. Big dramas exist since photography -- there is shock, I am ashamed to belong to the human race after seeing those pictures. So pictures put you in front of a reality that most of the times you don't want to see, don't want to know about, don't want to get involved. But there they are and you have to come down with yourself.

CNN: Do you use shock as a tool?

OT: I really don't know if I do something for shock but once we'll be really civilized, we won't get shocked any more by any picture. That's the point, people get shocked because they aren't really civilized yet, because they don't want to belong or face the problem of civilization. Maybe it's the duty of the photographer to shock them, bringing in front of them something that they probably don't want to look at. You don't have to go to a psychoanalyst to know yourself, you just look at your passport picture and it'll be easy for everybody to know your problem.

I want to photograph what exists and we don't want to look at -- that intrigues me a lot. And there are people who, when they look at a picture, they get angry at it. But they should get angry at themselves for not having the courage to look into the problem.

CNN: For your latest project, you decided to bring your work in the Middle East. What's it all about?

OT: The project is called "The Human Race." When you say that people get uncomfortable because they think there is more than one race -- there is just one race, and it's human. I remember when I was in school in a foreign country, I had to go and make a statement to the police and it asked for race, and I'd write human and the employee was mad at me. So every six months I had this discussion, it became a gag.

The right way to help is through your work, not to write a cheque at the end of the week after exploiting through your work. I don't like that. I like to participate with my work

CNN: Is there objectivity in photography?

OT: There isn't such thing, even with a camera. A lens is objective, you take part. I'm lucky because I take a part -- when I got to Israel I couldn't say where I stood -- I don't stay on one side, I stand on my side. I see every sides' virtues, values, defects and faults. So you can't say one is right and the other is wrong, and probably that's the problem in our communication; it's a continuous selection of what we should follow.

 
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