No Single Meaning – an alternative reading of Benetton’s “AIDS ad”

February 20th, 1992Stephen Mayes

Oliviero Toscani’s controversial advertisements for Benetton in the early ‘90s met with almost unanimous condemnation in the UK. This article considers the motives of the photographer and the subject’s family.

First published in The British Journal Of Photography, 13 February 1992

Much has been said in the discussion about Benetton’s motives in using Therese Frare’s photograph of David Kirby dying with AIDS to sell knitwear, and there has been an almost unanimous expression of disgust and condemnation at the advertiser’s cynical exploitation of such suffering for commercial gain.

However, less has been said about the Kirby family’s motives in using Benetton to distribute the picture of their grief at Kirby’s death. This could be seen as an equally cynical use of the advertising medium, but with an entirely different intention: to promote an awareness of AIDS.

There are two agendas operating here with very little overlap, and we are falling victim to our prejudices and the taunts of ‘Fleet Street’s’ petty moralists in only considering the arguments concerning one aspect. The automatic reaction has been to view the campaign in the context of knitwear sales, but turning the telescope around to look through the other end reveals an entirely different perspective, and a landscape of radical political activism can be examined.

I published an article six months ago (Indecent Exposures, BJP 5 September 1991) suggesting that photographs are used to marginalize unwelcome subjects. Indeed, I used this very picture to demonstrate that such imagery is not considered seriously enough, and that issues around HIV are trivialized by not being integrated within a wider cultural context. It could be argued that the recent furore has sensitized viewers to matters that were previously ignored, and that the Kirby family has struck a positive blow against a pattern of ‘moral censorship’ that has previously stifled recognition of a desperately important subject. I do not seek to deliver a judgement on the success of this tactic, but to promote a more serious debate than the simple discussion of commercial exploitation.

There is a story behind the origination of the picture and the photographer’s decision to release it. (It is interesting to note that while many newspapers have talked with the Kirbys, few have published their story, which apparently does not conform to the rigid moral structures of British journalism.)

Kirby was a dedicated AIDS activist, and was the founder of the Stafford, Ohio AIDS Foundation which he established to educate people about AIDS prevention and to work for the rights of those with AIDS. In this he worked with the support of his family who have continued to promote such awareness since his death. Frare had been documenting Kirby’s work and life for some time, and had originally declined to be at his death-bed; but she agreed to the family’s request that the scene should be recorded and this amazingly powerful picture is the result. What makes the picture special is not Kirby as the focus of attention, but the raw emotion of his family around him: this is not an image of an ‘AIDS victim’, but an evocation of how anybody and everybody can suffer the effects of the virus.

When approached by Benetton for use of the photograph, Frare deferred the decision to those most closely involved – the family, who proceeded with an astute analysis of the potential. They recognized that the campaign would create headlines, not just advertising slogans. At the time the Kirbys’ decision was made they realized that the complete context would extend far beyond the glossy pages of advertising magazines, and that additional to the slogan ‘United Colors’ the full caption would comprise columns of debate in newspapers, widespread airtime and endless private thought. It was this that they agreed to in their negotiation with the advertisers. The actual advertisement is only a tool used to achieve something that Kirby had fought for and spent all his money pursuing: some glimmer of concern from society that has at best ignored and at worst suppressed any realistic expression of the true human cost of the epidemic.

It is too early to say if this bold tactic has been successful. The early days of press debate focused on the immorality of the advertiser, but as Fleet Street hysteria dies down, a more serious debate becomes possible. The photograph is becoming part of international consciousness (the campaign is not even launched yet) and over a period of time it will stimulate considerable thought on several major issues long overdue for attention: HIV and AIDS of course, but also issues of representation (and the cultural significance of photography) and context as a factor in determining the meaning of pictures.

There are a number of issues surrounding this case which should be mentioned in ironic parentheses, not least of which is the job of censor adopted by Elle, IPC, EMAP and others who have chosen to boycott the photograph. While publicly proclaiming a role as guardians of ‘good taste’, the refusal of the picture is consistent with a history of not wishing to perturb readers with troublesome issues. Some issues are worth offending readers for: fashion (whether in knitwear or otherwise) is not such an issue, but HIV is, and Elle readers need to give as much thought to this as the rest of us.

If ‘commercial gain’ is to be cited as the unforgiveable motive for using a sensitive image, then we should all look out: I have yet to meet an altruistic publisher in any medium of mass communication. Publishers are in business to make money as much as clothing manufacturers, but it would be foolish to condemn them for publishing difficult pictures simply because they are profit-led, and if it takes the advertisers to break the media silence on important matters, so be it. Almost any information is better than no information. There is also an inconsistent silence on the use of David Turnley’s picture of a marine grieving over his dead buddy, currently used in the States to promote sales of Ektapress film. It is of course a very different context, but there are many parallels which anyone complaining to Benetton might also take up with Kodak: how to justify profit from death and suffering; and what is the relationship between violent death and photographic film? (The answer, of course, might be that patriotic death is traditionally seen as an acceptable subject for photographic representation, or that the photograph is a valid vehicle of raising debate about war, even in an advertisement. But if this should be true of Turnley’s picture, why not Frare’s?)

It is not my intention to raise support for Benetton as great philanthropists of the 20th century – having read this far some may be surprised to know that I condemn the company’s cynicism and exploitative tendencies as much as any other commentator. But I strongly believe that to attack the advertiser for using this picture is to follow a red herring. By restricting debate to discussion of the advertiser’s motives we undermine all the good that this picture can achieve: the emphasis on Benetton is misplaced, and anyone who is genuinely concerned by this application of Frare’s photograph should rather be finding a way to express positive support for the Kirby family. Let us be aware of all our reservations about whether they made the right decision, but let us not judge so quickly. It is too early to tell if they have succeeded in their intention, but in the meantime Frare and the Kirbys should be supported for making the attempt. And if in the process of highlighting the impact of AIDS they have inadvertently increased the sale of knitwear, it will have been a small price to pay.

At the time of writing Stephen Mayes as Managing Director of Network Photographers and an activist with OutRage! fighting homophobia