We spend our lives bombarded by photographs, but few have the ability to shock and amaze. Oliviero Toscani, the Italian photographer famous for his advertising campaigns for Benetton, is an exception to this rule. He has taken arresting shots almost his entire life, which is surprising given he’s not especially interested in photography.
“I’m not a fanatical photographer,” he told me recently. “I like to be a witness of my time, and photography is the way to do that. It’s like I’m not a writer just because I like fountain pens.”
Born in Milan in 1942, he has spent more than 50 years being a witness from behind a camera lens, a landmark commemorated in his book Magnificent Failures, recently published by Carlton Press in the United Kingdom.
Why Magnificent Failures? “I am never pleased with the end result,” he says.
“Life is a failure. Communism is a failure, democracy is a failure, capitalism is a failure. But occasionally we have some lucky successes: Christopher Columbus set off to discover a new way to India and discovered America. I will continue working until I die, like Picasso, but it will end in failure.”
His latest passion is a project called Razza Umana or Human Race, an exhibition of photos of people taken all over the world over a decade. Although he has worked with many top models, including Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer (he shot Naomi Campbell’s first Elle cover), he prefers to photograph unknowns.
“People who are photographed too much become empty,” he says. “Every human being is unique; I never saw two people the same. I don’t care about landscape and nature. I am fascinated by people.”
He also has radical views on the concept of borders. “Free movement is the most important thing in the world.”
“We won’t be civilised until we understand that every human being should be allowed to roam about as he or she wants. The world belongs to me, and I belong to the world. We should be like air, or a bird. If a Rolex watch can travel the world, why can’t I?”
He says that people have no choice in where they are born, that is their destiny, but it shouldn’t limit them. He is disappointed that the British voted to leave the European Union, as he believes in the European project, but thinks they will return one day. So does he want to extend borders? “No,” he says. “I don’t want to extend borders; I want to eliminate them altogether.”
We are hoping to bring Mr Toscani and a selection of his photographs to the Global Citizen Forum in Doha in November. They are truly thought-provoking and very inspiring.
Images copyright of Oliviero Toscani.