Staring out from Death Row, Benetton's faces now lead the fight for penal reform

Danielle Demetriou
Monday 13 December 2004 01:00 GMT

They were the images that haunted the world. The staring faces of Death Row inmates plastered across buses and billboards with the incongruous aim of selling brightly coloured knitwear.

The infamous Benetton campaign in America unleashed a torrent of public protests, ethics debates, lawsuits, compensation payments and - eventually - a humbled apology.

Benetton may have swapped its hard-hitting ad campaigns for a more conventional approach since the international furore surrounding the release of the Death Row images four years ago, but, for Oliviero Toscani, the man formerly behind nearly two decades of controversial advertising campaigns for Benetton, things clearly have not changed.

A series of Toscani's photographs of Death Row inmates are to be exhibited in the UK for the first time this week as part of a new campaign fighting for the abolition of capital punishment.

The photographs, which were taken as part of his research for the ad campaign but were largely unused, have been donated by Toscani to an anti-capital punishment pressure group in order to highlight the fate of an estimated 5,000 people who are put to death every week around the world.

"The death penalty is not just a problem for those countries which practise it: this is our problem," said Toscani. "And it is my intention that every face in this exhibition should personify this."

It was four years ago that Toscani left Benetton in the aftermath of the outcry surrounding the publication of a series of images of inmates facing the death penalty.

The photographer, widely credited with revolutionising the advertising industry, was no stranger to controversy. He was the man behind images of a black woman breast-feeding a white baby, an Arab kissing a Jew, a nun embracing a priest, a dying Aids patient and an unwashed newborn baby.

But it was his final venture dealing with the thorny issue of capital punishment that unexpectedly attracted the greatest controversy of his career.

It was in 1998 that Toscani set out to capture on camera the faces of 26 Death Row inmates in nine states across the US as part of a hard-hitting £10m campaign.

When it was unveiled two years later, there was an immediate public outcry. The families of victims of one of the convicted murderers picketed a store in Manhattan. The state of Missouri then filed a lawsuit against Benetton, claiming officials were deceived into letting inmates be used for advertising. Benetton's long-term partners, Sears Roebuck, also terminated a $100m contract.

Toscani left the company, a public apology was issued and $50,000 compensation paid to a fund for families of crime victims in Missouri. Toscani yesterday told The Independent how the drama surrounding the campaign had failed to dampen his campaign to abolish the death penalty.

"Death Row was a campaign I'd always wanted to do. It took years of planning and difficulties trying to arrange access to these people. It was a very big lesson for me to meet these people and to see how primitive society can be - and we're talking about the US here.

"You can imagine how much worse it is in countries like China where thousands are killed every year and Japan, which refuses to communicate any details at all."

The exhibition, entitled We, On Death Row, is to be based at the Boiler House in Brick Lane, east London, and features 26 images measuring an imposing 1.5m by 2m.

For Toscani, who once stated "there's no such thing as going too far", there was an element of satisfaction that his work was being used with a clear message that was completely disassociated from Benetton.

"In the beginning, Benetton was right behind the campaign, but then they became afraid of the reactions," he said.

"At the end of the day, a company only wants to make money. Benetton could have gone down in history as the first company to fight for human rights. But sadly managers prefer profits to human rights."

The project has been organised by the Brussels anti-capital punishment group Hands Off Cain. Itwill coincide with a conference debating the key issues as well as the launch of an online petition for a UN moratorium on the death penalty.

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