Bringing AIDS-Awareness Back into Fashion | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 14.07.2002
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Bringing AIDS-Awareness Back into Fashion

The AIDS conference in Barcelona may be over, and with it the daily coverage on the issue of AIDS. Controversial photographer Oliviero Toscani wants to raise awareness of AIDS - even if it means being provocative.


Photographer Toscani, famous for his Benetton campaigns, has been labelled the "bad boy of advertising". He describes himself as an anarchist.

It was one of the main topics in media coverage all over the world last week - the AIDS conference in Barcelona.

There are now fears that the illness may be pushed to the back seat, now that the conference is over. But there are some, who have are determined to raise awareness to a disease which is spreading fast throughout the world.

Inspiration and rage

Acoording to photographer Olivier Toscani communication, sometimes through provocation, is crucial to raising awareness of a disease that's killing tens of thousands of people worldwide.

The photographer is known for his shocking pictures, not least due to his collaboration with the clothing company, Benetton.

In the early 90s, Toscani created a series of advertisements for Benetton. The campaign featured a dying AIDS patient, David Kirby, with Benetton's small green logo floating in the corner. Shocking? Absolutely. Exploitation? Not at all, says Toscani.

Benetton AIDS Plakat

Photograph by Olivier Toscani of David Kirby with AIDS, for the Benetton campaign.

Oliviero Toscani's photographs are supposed to be shocking. From displays of coloured condoms to corpses, horses mating and prisoners on death row, his art has both inspired and enraged people all over the world. And that's just the way he wants it.

But Toscani also has his share of enemies. His poster promoting the film 'Amen', which was released earlier this year, infuriated Catholic bishops, Jews, and anti-racism campaigners, condemmning Toscani's depiction of a crucifix merged with a Nazi swastika.

In an interview with DW-WORLD, Toscani talks about communication, provocation, and bringing AIDS back into fashion.

Olivier Toscani: Well of course communication is the most important thing, but nobody wants to talk about that. You know, unfortunately AIDS is just not fashionable any more. It sounds stupid but somehow it is true. Of course private companies don’t care about it, they just want to make money. They’re only willing to talk about it once they’ve made their money. And when they stop making money, they stop talking. And magazines don’t talk about AIDS because it doesn’t sell.

So there was a time when AIDS was fashionable?

Toscani: Yes it was fashionable and it did interest people. Now people don’t really believe they can die of it. Until they die they don’t think they can die of it.

What do we need to do to make people aware that they can die from AIDS? You said communication was a key to raising awareness. But what does that mean in concrete terms?

Toscani: Everything is based on commercial and financial profit. If you talk about AIDS, you won’t sell products. You won’t sell magazines, you won’t sell newspapers, you won’t sell stories. It doesn’t sell. So since everything is determined by economics, it’s very difficult to communicate a message about AIDS today. I managed to do AIDS for Benetton because I also managed to get Benetton a profit out of it. But Benetton didn’t care at all about AIDS. They couldn’t care less.

Do you think being provocative is a way of raising awareness?

Toscani: Being provocative leads to curiosity, and curiosity boosts economy.

What you did a couple of years ago with Benetton – using pictures of people in the final stage of AIDS – would that still be appropriate?

Toscani: Yes it is appropriate, because we have to be informed about this. Young people especially have a need to know, and we don’t really tell them exactly how it is. There is no real information about that. You know there are still families who hide their relatives if they’ve got AIDS. They don’t say they’ve got AIDS. They are afraid, they are ashamed. Not everyone has the courage to say "I’ve got AIDS". You know, I still get complaints from some AIDS patients who tell me we shouldn’t have done what we did – we shouldn’t have shown people with AIDS. What do you mean, we shouldn’t have shown them? We had to show them! Especially to young people. What I’m saying is that just because you’ve got AIDS you are right. I actually think that people who’ve got AIDS don’t do enough.

So every campaign needs to be informative as well as provocative?

Toscani: Well, provocation is information. Of course it provokes a reaction because we are not accustomed to talking openly, we are not accustomed to sincerity. The information we get is always based on some economic objective.

While more and more people are becoming infected with HIV, public awareness is declining. If I were one of your clients, somebody from the European AIDS Foundation for example, and I asked you for advice about how we should change that – whether we should do more advertising or try to attract more media coverage - what would you say?

Toscani: Well the thing about non-commercial organisations is they always say the same old boring thing. They’ve got no courage. I’ve been working for the United Nations on an anti-smoking campaign. But they have no courage. They just do work just to keep their seats there. But they don’t really care about people. You know I’ve been working for FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation). All they do at FAO is eat! They just do dinner and lunch all the time. I mean I was amazed at how little goes to the people who really need it. It’s the same problem at UNICEF. Ninety percent goes to the employees. Five percent goes to the starving children. I don’t think very many of these organisations really work.

And do you think it makes sense to run global campaigns, or would it be better to create specific programs for different regions. For example, should a campaign designed for African countries be different from a campaign you might create for Europe?

Toscani: Well the campaign I did at the time was a global one and everybody understood it. You know, life and death are global.

You say non-commercial organisations usually don’t have the financial means to launch effective campaigns. How could they generate money, or what should they do?

Toscani: Well I think that commercial companies should do serious campaigns, instead of the stupid advertising they do. I would like to do a campaign on AIDS sponsored by Volkswagen.

So you think the private sector should show more interest?

Toscani: The private sector just exploits humanity, I mean they’re a bunch of thieves and murderers. The private sector just wants money. Profits, that’s it. They don’t care if people starve and die. They don’t give a shit. It’s terrible.

And how could AIDS and HIV be made more fashionable?

Toscani: Well through the private sector. By combining the issue itself with consumption. I did that. I combined consumption and fashion with AIDS. So it’s possible. The problem is there are few people who have the courage to do it. The advertising agencies are a bunch of wimps.

And would that approach still be possible today?

Toscani: Of course. It’s just that everybody’s so afraid to talk about life and death, about AIDS, about anything like that. That’s why society’s so unhappy. We’re afraid of everything. We’re afraid of living.

How do you think people in remote areas, in Asia or in South America, could they be reached – people who might not necessarily watch TV every day or have access to newspapers?

Toscani: I think it is possible. Look at the last football world championship. Imagine if one of the countries, if the German team or I don’t know, Senegal, had come out wearing shirts with an anti-AIDS message on them! It is possible, we just don’t want to do it. Because everything is geared to making money and profit. We don’t care if people die, if in Africa thousands of people are going to die. Actually, we don’t even let them use medicines or cheap copies of medicines because international sanctions are imposed against the people who copy the AIDS medicine. It’s terrible.

What do you think we can do to make young people more aware and to make them realise that HIV is still an incurable disease?

Toscani: We haven’t even started teaching them that. Nothing happens in school. And of course when you are twenty years old, the last thing you think about is dying. You don’t even believe you can die when you’re twenty. So it’s a whole perception of life that should be taught.

You’re thinking of a safe sex campaign, something like that?

Toscani: Yes. If you’re creative, something like that can be very interesting. But you know, nobody wants to go in that direction. Advertisers are going on doing stupid things. I mean look at the advertising, how it’s attracting young people in the most stupid ways. So it’s the fault of the whole communication world – of television, advertising. It’s just promotion of distorted sexual values and pushing seduction and sexual abuse.