Benetton Pieta

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Tibor Kalman was an editor and a journalist who believed that he had a moral obligation and a political desire to expose issues and make them as sexy as possible so an audience–primarily kids, but really everybody–would look at them. That was why his work with Oliviero Toscani for United Colors of Benetton were extremely jarring and haunting.

In November, 1990, while reading Life, Tibor ran across a black-and-white documentary photo. It showed an Ohio family around the bed of David Kirby, a 32-year-old man dying of AIDS in the Ohio State University Hospital in May 1990. Tibor and Benetton approached the Kirby family and the photographer, Therese Frare. Frare’s photo was part of a documentary on the lives of clients and caregivers in a hospice for people with AIDS and won the 1991 World Press Photo Award. (Twenty Years on, Life and Frare reflects on their iconic photo here.)

Benetton contributed generously to an AIDS foundation, with the family’s consent. The family approved of the use of the image and came to New York for a press conference. There was a collaborative feeling among all involved. The image of a man dying of AIDS, surrounded by his family (his father, sister and niece), shows the terryfying sight of a body devasted by the HIV virus. For a while, it became a central focus of the AIDS debate. It won the European Art Director Club award for the best 1991 campaign and the Houston International Center of Photography’s Infinity Award. In 2003 the photo was included in the Life magazine collection ‘100 Photos that changed the world’.

However, a number of AIDS activists believed that the photograph and its use in advertising actually painted AIDS victims in a negative light. Others perceived the campaign as a vindication of homosexuality. For some there was something insensitive about the implied connection between the deaths of David Kirby and Jesus. Many magazines refused to print it. Yet, in some countries, this photo became the very first depiction about AIDS.

Kissing Nun

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Oliviero Toscani is a well-known fashion photographer whose work has appeared in magazines such as Elle, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Stern. However, it is his advertising campaign (The United Colors of Benetton) for Benetton from 1982 to 2000 that made him and the firm world famous. In the United Colors, he brought together strongly contrasting opposites in the same image to symbolize the acceptance of differences, multiculturalism, the fight for equality and peace.

“Kissing-nun” (1992) dealt with the theme of religion, contrasting a profane, sensual kiss with the sacred vows pronounced by men and women who enter religious orders. Challenging the principle of religious celibacy, the picture encourages viewers to refuse traditional constraints and thereby directly attacks the basic values of Catholicism. The public felt deeply offended; in Italy, bowing to pressure from the Vatican, the use of the image was finally prohibited. The French authorities demanded the withdrawal of the posters.

In the later years, he moved away from the original intention of the advertisements (the presentation of Benetton clothes) with pictures of a black woman breastfeeding a white baby, of a white wolf and a black sheep or of a tiny black hand held in a large white one. In 2000, his Death Row campaign used portraits of 26 American prisoners who had been condemned to death which created a public outcry. Benetton fired Toscani. Toscani went on which his career, causing further controversies along the way. In 2002, making the poster for the movie Amen (about the Vatican’s wartime collaborations with Hitler) he combined a Christian cross with a Nazi swastika.

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