Oliviero Toscani is photographing his latest campaign for Benetton in the Middle East. What does high-street fashion's most notorious creative director think he's up to?
Oliviero Toscani is in a provocative mood again. The bad boy of the advertising world, the mastermind of Benetton's poster campaigns, the photographer who brought you kissing clerics, giant walls of genitalia and endless multicoloured condoms, has this uncontrollable urge to attack someone, something, anything, if it gives him half a chance to raise either a laugh or someone's hackles. It might be the smell of a place he does not like, or an over-smarmy admirer, or one of the many - and frequent - critics of his work.

Right now it is the Germans. The scene is Hebron, on the West Bank, where Toscani is putting images together for next year's Benetton spring/summer catalogue. A German television crew has been following him around Israel and the occupied territories for a couple of days, dogging him with awkward questions and demanding his time precisely when he is least disposed to offer it. "Mr Toscani!" the camera operator shouts out, just as the photographer is setting up his next shot. "Two years ago you went to Gaza and took pictures of young Palestinians looking happy and well-dressed in their Benetton outfits. Anyone who has been to Gaza knows that in reality people are poor and miserable. Aren't your pictures a very cynical way of selling T-shirts?"

Toscani turns on his inquisitor with venom in his eyes. "I think you fat Germans should stop sitting in your armchairs watching TV and complaining how cynical other people are," he says. "You should look at the mirror, not the TV. Then you'd realise how disgusting you are." And with that he lets out a roar of mischievous laughter, stares at the cameraman for an instant to gauge his utterly nonplussed reaction, then turns back to the photographic session as if nothing had happened.

The moment is classic Toscani. It is not clear if he really hates the Germans, or if he is merely goading the TV crew for their excessive ponderousness. No doubt he has a response to their entirely legitimate questions about the Gaza catalogue, but heaven forbid that he should actually give it to them. He does not answer his detractors, he turns the tables on them. Provocation is his speciality; at this point in his career it has become an automatic impulse, a nervous tic.

As a result, his personality is as hard to pin down as his photographs. When he produces his arresting images of racism, pollution and the ravaging effects of Aids, it is hard to tell if he is waging a social crusade, as Benetton would have us believe, or merely clamouring for attention. Is all the controversy the price to be paid by a visionary artist condemned to suffer the incomprehension of his contemporaries? Or is the controversy the point, the thing that Toscani craves because it gets his name into the papers and stirs up debate at dinner-tables across the globe? And where exactly do the brightly coloured T-shirts fit in?

His latest project raises these questions all over again. Ostensibly, the new Benetton catalogue aims to promote the cause of Middle Eastern peace by picturing Jews and Arabs together - as friends, colleagues, or willing consumers of each other's services. Thus Toscani shows a Jewish barber in Tel Aviv shaving an Arab client with a cut-throat razor (in itself a highly provocative image), or an Arab doctor in Jaffa together with the Jewish family he has been treating for years.

All well and good, one might think, until one recalls that the Middle Eastern peace process is actually in tatters, that dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians has all but ceased. A few days before the Toscani circus reached Israel, three Palestinian suicide bombers struck on a busy street in Jewish West Jerusalem. As Toscani arrived, the Israeli authorities raised the stakes on their side by condoning the occupation of two houses in Arab East Jerusalem by Jewish settlers. In such an atmosphere, the Benetton campaign lays itself open to every kind of accusation, from naivety to deliberate misrepresentation of political reality.

Toscani, characteristically, does not care what people think. So what if, in order to find Arabs and Jews who like each other, he has to spend nearly all of his time in the one part of Israel - Jaffa and the adjacent suburbs of Tel Aviv - where Palestinians have been allowed to stay in their homes and given a modicum of recognition? In the case of Hebron, since the only resident Israelis are heavily armed settlers who make no secret of their desire to get rid of the Palestinian population, the only way he could bring friends together was to "cheat": the Isreali was not a Hebron resident at all, but an Israeli-American news photographer from Jerusalem. He put her together with a Palestinian colleague doing the same job for an American news agency.

"People accuse me of being simplistic," he says. "Well yes, I am simplistic. But if you're ever going to solve this situation you must think differently from the way people have thought up to now." That means side-stepping politics or even, at times, flying in the face of political reality. With Toscani, the image is all, no matter what it takes to realise it.

In Hebron, the townsfolk wanted to believe that the arrival of this strange, boisterous photographer, together with his noisy entourage - hair stylist, make-up artist, photographic assistant, clothing co-ordinator, publicity agents and a gaggle of accompanying journalists - heralded something positive for their lives. But as the party progressed from the high barbed-wire fence separating the old town from the Jewish settlement of Beit Hadassah, through the souk and out onto the road where a fleet of four-wheel drives was waiting to take them all back to Jerusalem, a sense of deep disappointment set in. Street traders muttered how they had been ripped off, taken for a ride, treated like quaint characters in a charade put on for the amusement of some celebrity they did not know. Dammit, the photographers snapped and clicked their way through the market but barely bought so much as a bag of figs.

"I don't care about Hebron," Toscani admitted afterwards. "I came to capture an image of two friends. Hebron is where they met, so that is where I photographed them. I'm not interested in the rest. That's for journalists to write about, and I'm not a journalist. I see the world in a different way. Okay, so I went for a walk in the market, but I could have been walking anywhere. It could have been Bond Street or Via Frattina in Rome, but that would have been boring. Here it wasn't boring."

Once again, Toscani proves frustratingly elusive. Here he is, feigning a modish world-weariness, where five minutes earlier he was preaching on the need for companies like Benetton to do their bit to make the world a better place. "Companies are the new churches," he had insisted. "It is only through their input that problems can be solved. Most of them prefer to remain detached. But the economy is the key to progress in the modern world."

It is this ambiguity - the blend of socio-political commitment and adolescent shock-tactics - that informs Toscani's photography and brings out such rage in his critics. If he just set out to provoke, without all that preaching, his work would be easier to justify in artistic terms. If he just lived by the touchy-feely slogans of the United Colors of Benetton, in which all the world's a village and every individual counts, his images would be cute, comfortable, but utterly without the edge that has made him famous.

TOSCANI'S knack of touching raw nerves through advertising long predates his association with Benetton. Back in the 1970s he produced an image for Jesus Jeans of a young woman in cut-offs thrusting her buttocks towards the camera. "Thou shalt have no other jeans but me," read the accompanying slogan. The ensuing furore was so noisy that it moved Pier Paolo Pasolini, that other enfant terrible of Italian culture, to write an admiring essay on how Toscani had brilliantly exposed the problematic relationship between commerce, sex and the Catholic church.

Once installed as Benetton's official photographer in the early 1980s, Toscani combined his ability to shock with a novel technique - the use of real people, not fashion models - and a revolutionary notion: that advertising should not simply be a window for a range of products, but should be a source of independent images offered for general public consumption. "I'm not a salesman, I'm an image- maker," he likes to say. "People don't see an advert and then rush out to buy the product. There are an awful lot more people who have seen my photographs than will ever become customers of Benetton."

Thus, Toscani does not see himself as Benetton's stooge. Rather, he compares his relationship with his employer to that of Renaissance artists with the papal courts of their time. It is a symbiotic relationship, in which each side enhances the image of the other. "They sell clothes, but they also sell me," he says. Benetton does not just offer fashion advertising; it offers Art as well.

One has the impression that commerce and art, Toscani-style, do not always overlap comfortably. More than once - when Toscani photographed rows of crosses in a French military cemetery just before the Gulf War, or when he showed the bloodied clothing of a dead Croat soldier at the height of the Bosnian conflict - Benetton has had to bend over backwards to give a moral dimension to photographs that seemed utterly gratuitous, if not deliberately shocking. According to the company press office, the soiled uniform was a "symbol of peace"; as for the crosses, they were reminders "that in wartime nobody wins: beyond uniforms and races and religions, death is the only victory".

Such moral preoccupations are entirely absent from Toscani himself. Indeed, one of his biggest gripes is how over-moralistic his critics are. Travelling around Israel he showed a blithe indifference to the human situations he sought to capture on film, revelling instead in his own celebrity status and throwing out hollow wisecracks for the reporters to record faithfully in their notebooks. "Isn't the countryside lovely?" an assistant said casually at one point. "Yes," Toscani chipped in, "the design is fantastic!" More than once he helped an Italian TV crew capture the best angle of himself at work. When the press photographers got too insistent, he started taking pictures of them and mockingly called them paparazzi. "Hey, you, get in the picture!" he shouted at the hapless German film crew, manhandling them into position. "You've been breaking my balls all day, now get in the picture. No, not the young woman over there, you're too pretty. The press is ugly, UGLY!"

Toscani is an utterly amoral artist for a valueless, media-obsessed age. He produces his images - for Benetton, for the public, but mostly for his own amusement - and then releases them into the public domain to be treated as the world thinks fit. For him, images have an absolute value in themselves; they do not need to mean anything, and they certainly don't need to justify themselves by encouraging people to rush to the shops and buy Benetton T-shirts. Ultimately, he falls into the grand old tradition of Ital- ian showmen - flashy, undeniably charming, but also all-consuming and shamelessly self- promoting. He charges around the world devouring people and situations, laughing his demoniacal laugh as he transforms the passions and conflicts of everyday life into slick bill- board images. It is not an edifying or uplifting spec-tacle, but in these times of image-powered consumption, Oliviero Toscani is a peculiarly representative sort of artist. !