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Essay: Importance of context for understanding and appreciation of photographs

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  • Published: 22 November 2021*
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In this essay, I will discuss and reflect on the importance of context for the understanding and appreciation of a photograph, or a series of photographs. This will be in both the terms of the context of the photographs production, and the context of how the photograph is received. The image I have chosen to reflect on is the Benetton campaign ‘Three Hearts’ with bold black text saying ‘White, Black, Yellow’, portraying each race. John Berger argues that ‘everyone has their own way of seeing’ this is because people view the text differently and the meaning of it. He explains that the author will select what the photograph is and the viewer selects what to focus on. Furthermore in his ‘Ways of Seeing’ TV Series book, Berger says “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe.”[2] (John Berger, p8) Berger is trying to explain that if you look at an image it might represent what you know and believe rather than what you actually see within the text.

In order to discuss this I will consider the brand Benetton, this brand has a presence in 120 countries with more than 5,500 shops [11] (Lorella Pagnucco Salvemini,p15). It’s mainly well known for its shocking campaigns that have been produced. Many were created by the famous Italian advertising and fashion photographer, Oliviero Toscani. The Three Hearts Campaign, I was especially interested in as I am familiar with the pictures from previous work I have done. I was also familiar with other work that Toscani’s has produced. Benetton was founded in 1965 by an Italian family; it is a clothing brand based in Ponzano Veneto, Italy. Toscani worked for the brand between the years of 1982 to 2000, during these years he built up the creative force to make into one of the world’s most recognised brands [11] (Lorella Pagnucco Salvemini, part of the front cover). He is also a co-founder of the magazine called Colour along with Benetton.

Oliviero Toscani and the Benetton Company made these photographs as advertising campaign for the clothing line. The picture I have chosen shows different ethnic backgrounds of three different people. Toscani’s traditional strategy was the success of his unflinching treatment of difficult subjects such as sex, death and racism [11] (Lorella Pagnucco Salvemini, part of the front cover). Many of the brands campaigns were based on important world subjects, like the Ebony and Ivory campaigns which highlighted racism and HIV. The adverts were made to create a shocking effect on the viewers, which would get people talking about the images. This photo shows three hearts, it is not like any other clothing advert. While there had been some racism campaigns before the Benetton ads were released, the Benetton campaigns were original as no one previously had gone as in depth with the photography as Toscani had; this is part of the context in production as shocking ads haven’t been created in the way Toscani had created them for Benetton, the way Oliverio Toscani has produced these adverts gives them meaning of racism or death or sex, which helps the viewers have their own way of seeing which can be “affected by what we know or what we believe” [2] (John Berger, p8) The photograph of the three hearts was displayed on billboards in France and many countries for the ‘World Anti-Racism Day 21st March, 1996’ [6]. Throughout the year that this campaign was released, the world had a lot going on with racism, James M. Jones the author of the book Prejudice and Racism. States that some evidence suggests that that racism has gotten worse he says “Prejudice is a problem of differences. We treat people differently who are not like us, and we think people who are like us are better than they are.”[9] This quote that Jones has written about the newspapers, links with Toscani’s image of the hearts as they are all the same people shouldn’t be treated differently. The three hearts were identical to human hearts which helped highlight racism; because it showed that each person no matter who they are, are all equal in some way. The organs used where pigs hearts. Benetton would place adverts on billboards and on a magazine spread. Doing so, they were getting people’s attention in several places. People were constantly exposed to over a longer period of time. “An image is a sight which has been recreated or reproduced.” [2] (John Berger, p9). Which leads to the appearance of the time and place which you get your views of the image, Liz Welles summarized this as “The dislocation of time and place” (This quote I have taken from my notes, from lecture 1).

It is interesting to consider carefully, Oliviero Toscani’s Benetton adverts, for example his image is based on racism, such as his autumn-winter 1990 advert of a woman a man and a child all with different ethnic backgrounds, and they wanted to show the different ethnic backgrounds in different ways to show a happy family. The clothing company is selling the clothes to everyone and not just a certain person. The advert isn’t just about getting the brand more well-known, but to show they care about the social issues of the world. The three hearts image isn’t just picturing racism, it shows that each person, no matter what background they have, are all as equal as each other. In the words of Shakespeare “If you prick us, do we not bleed? On the inside we are all the same white, black, yellow” [4].

John Berger argues that each viewer has their own ‘Ways of Seeing’ and this can be recognised in people’s responses to the Benetton adverts. All the adverts have caused controversy and disgust, but they have won prizes, not just from the advertising companies, but from the arts world as well. The meaning of any image doesn’t just come from the author; it can be interpreted by the viewer. It is interesting to consider how people viewed the advert and what they thought. People now will possibly be disturbed by the image of the hearts but not give much thought about them, they may look at it as an anti-racism campaign just from the three words ‘White, Black and Yellow’. J. Francis Davis says in an article of images and power. “Pictures have become tools used to elicit specific and planned emotional reactions in the people who see them.”[7] Benetton made a choice of using this type of photography when they were advertising; Davis states two of the main methods that the images are used now: “First there is the immediate, emotional level on which we recognize the flag or the sexy body and react in a way that taps our inner stories or emotions.” [7] Benetton engaged their viewers by using obdurate emotion within the image which gives the viewers an emotional picture that they are thinking about, this is very effecting for the brand production as they want to be known and showing emotional ads gives them this. “But second, there is a much broader stage on which we can step back and look at one image in context with hundreds of others.”[7] Davis has wrote about that the one image or text can have more than one meaning, which is also what Berger feels from his book.

Even though most of the Benetton adverts are arguably disgusting, this may have been shocking to the eye but this advert was hard to argue against even though some people were against them using the word yellow to represent Asians but many viewers really liked this image. When the advert first came out in 1996 people were disgusted by what Benetton and Toscani had produced but they were they never thought about the meaning behind the adverts they has created. Whereas now when I look at this advert I was shocked to see the hearts but I think from looking at the image itself you see the meaning and what they tried to present on their billboards. Mira Wehbe is another person that is a big fan of the Benetton adverts; it’s her favourite image that I have chosen. As she views the image she sees three human hearts all laid in the same way, with the three words on, which represent the skin colours of three different ethnic backgrounds. She said “But when we preserve an image of heart alone we will think of something discussing maybe, or organ donation, or someone died from a heart attack, or a mother is giving birth to a new baby so we see it as in a denotative way.” [8] This Benetton ad, shows the differences in colour by stating the colours on the hearts, they all represent peoples skin colours. The hearts are made in the same biological way from the inside, Oliviero Toscani highlights those skin colours in his advert, he has thought about the meaning as well as the visual impact of the advert, when he was producing them his has thought about the context of the production. I did some research on how people felt the image today and one person said she liked how it identified the different categories of race, which she hadn’t seen it presented like that before, she thought that the ad is effective as it shows all the different races and it does mean that were all human and that we are all the same and should be treated the same. Also that there shouldn’t be a social divisions between us.

In conclusion, I believe that everyone has their own way of seeing things like how Benetton created these adverts to show they cared for the social issues that had happened or are happening around them. By placing the adverts on billboards in different places it can give them a different meaning to people, not only showing them in many places but the time in which people view the image has an effect on what they see as well, like Liz Welles had described, and also the time in which they view the images creates different opinions also like John Berger explained in the ways of seeing TV show “Everything around the image is part of its meaning” (I have used this quote from lecture 1 as it backed up my point). I viewed this image and was disturbed and shocked that someone had photographed three hearts for a campaign, but the meaning for me is about ethnic backgrounds and that we are all the same on the inside and that we shouldn’t treat anyone any different to we would oursleves. From asking someone their opinion of this image they thought it was effective from showing the races like they did on the hearts and they liked how they had represent racism in an image. Most of what I researched of viewer’s people looked at the image in the same way I had. Although some were against the word yellow on the heart. Also from reading John Bergers Book, his ways of seeing came more clear in different ways, as people could recreated what has already been made, and it can be affected by what they already knew about the subject in Oliviero Toscani’s adverts. From the article of James M. Jones’ book, I learnt more about what was happening in the year that Benetton created the Three Hearts advert and why they may have created this image. From looking at an argument Davis had written about this image, he stated two things in which people would do for advertising, which Oliviero Toscani has used in the production of the advert, as Roland Barthes says in his ‘The Death of the Author’ in 1967, “The one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art” (notes from lecture 1) he mentioned this as there would have been four versions of himself before the viewers saw the pictures.


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