Katerina Sulova / CTK Photo / imago images
Italian star photographer Oliviero Toscani, born in 1942, studied at the Kunsthochschule in Zurich. His work drew attention to AIDS, racism, anorexia and the futility of wars. The Atelier Jungwirth in Graz is showing a retrospective on Toscani until January 25th.
His most famous photos show death-row multiple murderers, the blood-infused battle dress of a fallen soldier or a shockingly emaciated AIDS sufferer in his deathbed in the circle of the family – all advertising for the fashion group Benetton. 77-year-old Oliviero Toscani has just taken pictures for a Munich-based art insurance company.
His facial expression during the interview gives the highest tension, he has clenched his teeth, his mouth is slightly open. When he listens, he dies with the molars. At first glance, only his colorful striped stockings look friendly.
He greets the interlocutor with the question of whether this is tattooed – that he could not suffer. He mixes his English with a few words of German: "Guten Tag", "Wirtschaft" and "Konzentrationslager".
SPIEGEL: Mr. Toscani, one of your first works was an affront to the church: the advertising campaign for the label Jesus Jeans.
Oliviero Toscani: I did not do a campaign, but photos. "Campaign" called it the others. The military is campaigning, not me!
SPIEGEL: One of the photos shows a female butt in hot pants, then a supposed Jesus quote: "He who loves me, follows me". Did you then invent the brand Toscani, the provocateur?
Toscani: That's what only a stupid art director or creative director would think. I am what I am. I never tried to be important. If I get a job, I'll do it. Not more.
SPIEGEL: Racism, War, Pollution, AIDS …
Toscani: … these are all things that surround me …
SPIEGEL: … and that were subjects of your advertising photos. They were accused of capitalizing on suffering and catastrophes, of photographic misery tourism.
Toscani: And the Supreme Court in Germany has banned the photos.
SPIEGEL: You no longer reacted to the big crises of the recent past, such as the nuclear accident in Fukushima, IS terror, climate emergency, the worldwide refugee movement. Have you realized that your critics are right?
Toscani: I did not find a company that wanted to join and I need a stage … but I have a lot of pictures in my head.
SPIEGEL: What do they look like?
Photographer and provocateur
Toscani: They are pictures. To look at. You can not put it into words, that's why they are pictures. Roger that? You can whistle music. No pictures, you have to see them. Only one picture encourages people to think independently. By the photo of the dead refugee boy Aylan Kurdi everybody got it, here there is a problem. Videos in the news did not make it.
SPIEGEL: Does it make you bitter that many of the issues you have been addressing as a photographer for 40 years have become even bigger and more global – such as racism or pollution?
Toscani: I find that disturbing, of course. But what should I do? There is one thing worse than being too late. To be early. That's how I felt. That does not feel good.
SPIEGEL: You were a champion of integration.
Toscani: I never wanted to be a champion. Because there is a bad, one is constantly criticized, down, hostile.
SPIEGEL: How do you explain the hatred for refugees, which can be observed in Germany as well as in Italy?
Toscani: "strangers", "foreigners", these words are totally negatively connoted, historically conditioned. There is no real reason for racism. Humanity should be better educated, but it is not, not even civilized. In the end, weapons still decide. Even worse are the social media, these are the new concentration camps.
SPIEGEL: This comparison is cynical. And inappropriate. But you probably know that yourself.
Toscani: I stick with it: The social media are the concentration camps of modern society. You go in and get turned off.
SPIEGEL: Is provocation really about everything?
Toscani: That's what you mean! Many young people are useless. A lot of talent is lost. And opportunities. Young people no longer believe in the future. When I was young, I was thinking only about the future.
SPIEGEL: If you look at Greta Thunberg and the "Fridays for Future" demonstrations, you get a different impression. There is obviously a new generation that is very worried about the future of our planet and politically involved.
Toscani: Those are the ones born after the year 2000. I have 16 grandchildren of six children. The youngest are much more independent, more critical. I am optimistic about this generation. They understand that the world is complex.
SPIEGEL: Have you had a career in your career?
Toscani: … I have no career. I am not a manager or politician. Artists do not make a career. They do what they have to do.
SPIEGEL: How do you want to name your career then?
Toscani: Work. Career makes you in business. Work is the opportunity to express oneself.
SPIEGEL: Did you sometimes have the need to just put the camera down and help the people in front of the lens? For example, the anorexic model Isabelle Caro, who died three years after your commercials. Or the hardworking children you photographed for Benetton.
Toscani: Why should I have put the camera away? You also do not ask a doctor if he still helps his patients after the operation? The OP is the help! I would not have taken these photos if I had not felt guilty. As for Caro, if she did not get the attention through the photo, she would have died earlier. The photo has more or less kept her alive, it has made her feel valuable. All the poor people I photographed should I have given them money? Money does not solve problems, that's stupid, capitalistic, colonial thinking.
SPIEGEL: You have been working for Benetton since 2017. The Benetton family holds shares in the insurance company Generali, for whose art insurance you now also advertise. They photographed the artist Maurizio Cattelan for this purpose: he poses naked, with a replica of his artwork called "America", a gold toilet that was stolen from an exhibition in September ….
Toscani: … Luciano Benetton stole her! This is your headline!
SPIEGEL: In 2017, a museum offered US President Trump the golden toilet for the White House …
Toscani: … but Trump did not want it. Now he's shitting in the garden.
SPIEGEL: Your model Cattelan is just as scandalous as you. For a work of art he buried the pope under a striking meteorite, he placed a praying on knees Hitler statue in front of a former ghetto. Your current collaboration, on the other hand, looks pretty boring.
Toscani: You are a bastard! When I take exciting photos, I am dragged to German courts. And if I do not feel like it, say I'm boring. You can call me, that's my last answer.