Spotlight: Photography

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In 1998, six months after graduating from England's Newport School of Art and Design, aspiring photographer James Mollison was visiting a friend in Italy. He tagged along to work one day with his buddy, who had a job in the graphics department at Fabrica, Benetton's creative research lab just outside of Treviso. Mollison had the luck to run into the notorious creative director Oliviero Toscani, did a quick assigment for him, joined the Fabrica staff and now finds himself, at the age of 28, in the shoes of the man who became his mentor. Now that Toscani has formally parted ways with the Benetton family, the young Mollison has taken over one of his most prominent responsibilities: capturing the politically-charged ad images that make Benetton stand out from its competition.

Not a bad gig for a guy who had no prior ad experience. Moreover, his intensive internship at Fabrica further nurtured Mollison's appreciation for documentary photography, which he had studied at Newport. While at Fabrica, Mollison was commissioned to do a shoot in Albania on Kosovan refugee camps for ID magazine. Toscani was so taken with the photographs he expanded the project into a full-blown book on the camps, co-sponsored by Fabrica and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The documentary experience paid off for Mollison when he shot "Volunteers," Benetton's first corporate campaign since Toscani's controversial "We On Death Row" work, which plastered the faces of inmates sentenced to death on billboards and in magazines. The current round of ads is more uplifting, in celebration of the UN's International Year of Volunteers. The campaign, from a concept originated by Mollison, finds do-gooders in the most unlikely of individuals. It sent him around the globe, blending an advertising sensibility with a photojournalist's approach. "I formulated a visual strategy in which I would always have the volunteer in front of me, looking into the camera. I felt it was important to be direct, which is not always the case in a true documentary photo. But at the same time I was looking to capture some kind of feeling for what each volunteer did, what work he was involved in." The campaign depicts, for example, the tattooed and pierced William "Weazrock" Huezo, posed menacingly against a graffiti background with his equally menacing homeys. But the former L.A. gang member now leads an anti-violence and outreach group in his native El Salvador - a country that has suffered growing gang-related crime since the U.S. increased deportation of immigrants with criminal records in the 1990s.

Admittedly, "Volunteers" isn't nearly as eyebrow-raising as most of Toscani's work has been. "My intention wasn't to shock," Mollison explains. But "Volunteers" hasn't failed to spark some Toscani-type controversy. One of the shots features the letting-it-all-hang-out Marianna Handler, flanked by three fellow male nudists, who are more discreetly posed. Handler is the volunteer head of a California nudist beach and also is a rep for the Naturist Action Committee. The ad was denounced by Nicole Perry, a French junior minister for women's rights, who called the image of Handler a caricature. "I'm always slightly worried about using people on billboards; I'm concerned that I may be taking advantage of them," Mollison admits. Fortunately, he says he's only received words of appreciation from his subjects.

Mollison is not limiting himself to documentary work; he also shot a series of seasonal product ads for Benetton, which retain the traditional white backdrop but are more energized than campaigns past, with models in motion, spinning and flipping. It was Mollison's fashion-shoot debut and his first opportunity to work with a team of creatives and stylists. His heart, however, lies with photojournalism. "The work that really interests me is more socially based," he notes. "I hope to do fashion photography that also talks about the place where I'm shooting. I'm still very interested in doing imagery that will make people think."

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