A legal and ethical history of photography
Daniel Girardin + Christian Pirker, November 1, 2010
Frank Fournier, Omayra Sanchez, Armero, Colombie, 1985_© Frank Fournier / Contact Press Images
Frank Fournier, Omayra Sanchez, Armero, Colombie, 1985_© Frank Fournier / Contact Press Images
Frank Fournier, Omayra Sánchez, Armero, Columbia, 1985

This picture was taken by Frank Fournier in Columbia on Saturday 16 November 1985, a few days after the eruption of the Nevado Del Ruiz volcano. The landslide provoked by the eruption had already killed 24,000 people as the local authorities had taken no preventive measures despite the warnings of vulcanologists. In this natural catastrophe, the young Omayra Sánchez was caught in the town of Armero in debris transported by the mud. For two full days and three nights, rescue workers tried to free her with the whole world following her ordeal on TV or in the papers. The crane and the hydraulic pump that were needed to clear the debris didn’t arrive in time. Omarya’s hips had been injured by metal bars and her legs were trapped. She was exhausted and despite her impressive faith and calm, she died of a heart attack on 16 November.

For Frank Fournier, a member of the agency Contact Press Images and the author of documentaries published worldwide, the feeling of powerlessness was overwhelming. He was unable to save the victims who urgently needed medical aid and professional care. He realised that all he could do was record the suffering of the young girl in the hope that this would help mobilise international aid. Although he had considerable success in the media, winning the World Press Photo prize in 1986 for this portrait of Omarya, Frank Fournier was understandably gnawed by doubt. The agonising death of a young girl, surrounded by journalists and photographers, was followed live on television all over the world. Fournier’s reactions show how deeply a photographer can be forced to question his work and to doubt its legitimacy. This case highlights the terrible dilemma of either showing reality as it is and running the risk of shocking the public, or of refusing to record such tragedies.

Fournier found himself at the centre of a major controversy: in such a situation, wouldn’t it have been better to offer help rather than to take pictures? Is it possible to show the suffering of others without violating their right to have their privacy respected? For some people, broadcasting the drama of Omarya’s death was obscene. The case illustrates the vicious commercial circle in which news programmes are trapped nowadays, their obligation not to be outdone by the competition and a coverage of events oscillating between the extremes of voyeurism and sensationalism. Confronted with these issues, many photographers insist on their ethical probity and their sense of personal responsibility. For them it is of the utmost importance that the public be informed.

Oliviero Toscani, Kissing-nun, 1992_© Copyright 1991 Benetton Group S.p.A. - Photo: Oliviero Toscani
Oliviero Toscani, Kissing-nun, 1992_© Copyright 1991 Benetton Group S.p.A. - Photo: Oliviero Toscani
Oliviero Toscani, Kissing-nun, 1992

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 work for Benetton from 1982 to 2000 that made him world famous. Over a period of eighteen years, he created a very strong visual identity for the firm which helped establish its reputation. By the year 2000, Benetton had become one of the five most famous brand names in the world with stores in more than one hundred and twenty countries.

Toscani began the advertising campaign with a series of variations on the slogan The United Colors of Benetton, bringing together strongly contrasting opposites in the same image. In this way he created a direct, provocative message that conveyed a whole range of positive values such as the acceptance of differences, multiculturalism, the fight for equality and peace. He then began to move gradually away form the original intention of the advertisements, which was 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.

The themes became increasingly provocative, focusing on news and current affaires, and began to generate intense controversy that in some cases ended in court. In 2000, the Death Row campaign, using portraits of 26 American prisoners who had been condemned to death, created an outcry in the public but also amongst distributors of the clothes and the families of the prisoners. Benetton decided the time had come to end its collaboration with Toscani.

“Kissing-nun” deals with the theme of religion, contrasting a profane, sensual kiss with the sacred vows pronounced by men and women who enter religious orders. By challenging the principle of religious celibacy, the picture encourages viewers to refuse traditional constraints and thereby directly attacks the basic values of Catholicism. Inevitably, part of the public felt deeply offended and in Italy, bowing to pressure from the Pope and the Vatican, the use of the image was finally prohibited.

In France, the Office for the Surveillance of Advertising Practice demanded the withdrawal of the posters after receiving numerous complaints lodged by religious associations. The problem reoccurred, as it inevitably does whenever a picture challenges religious beliefs, with the poster for the film Amen (2002), also designed by Toscani, which shows a Christian cross transformed into a Nazi swastika. The demand for the prohibition of the poster was nevertheless refused by French law courts on the grounds of previous jurisprudence dealing with the issue.

Toscani succeeded in freeing advertising from its traditional codes rooted in consumerism by using of the power of images to add a social dimension to an activity that had previously been purely commercial. Infringing taboos with the use of forceful pictures, he provoked the intense debates which are the sign of a successful policy of communication in contemporary society.

Through February 6, 2011

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