These days Letizia Battaglia, a great and undisputed protagonist of Italian photography and culture, is subject of discussion about the controversy over the shoot produced made for the Lamborghini campaign; photographs that succumbed under the shitstorm unleashed on social media and the stance taken by the mayor of Palermo, to the perverse logic of politically correct puritanism and cancel culture.
Another project by an Italian photographer who is also remarkably valid is Anna Di Prospero’s. The projects is part of the same promotional campaign, both for the car and for the beauties of Italy. In her photographs there are no little girls; the author, as in most of her works, places herself in the scene. However, even in this case the duo women-motors is renewed, one of the reasons that seems to be at the basis of the criticisms towards Letizia Battaglia’s work, as, according to some, it proposes a sexist stereotype. But Di Prospero’s photographs, on the contrary, have not received any criticisms of this degree. This sparked my curiosity and so I tried to understand why, starting from the fact that both photographers have transposed their own trademarks within their works. What I propose is not a comparison between the two shoots in order to estimate their worths, but simply to try to grasp the rhetoric underlying the images which may have affected the perception of the observers. Di Prospero’s photographs are, like those of Letizia Battaglia, perfectly in line with the author’s poetics, themes and style. They are also very harmonious, both from the chromatic and compositional point of view. They always put the flaming red car in the centre, while her figure, when it appears, remains in the background. However, what is the difference – from the media point of view – compared to the Battaglia’s photographs? That in this case the woman presents herself as the subject who owns and drives the car, not the one who places her image and body alongside that of the car.
In Di Prospero’s photographs it is instantly clear (with the rapidity which nourishes the effectiveness of a commercial message) of the relationship that exists between the woman and the car (the latter is an instrument of freedom and emancipation of the former (thanks to which he can move and go wherever she wants to).
Letizia Battaglia instead put her little girls with a serious and enigmatic look and her teenagers in search of emancipation within an advertising message that probably had little chance of being immediately caught, although her girls are in the foreground and the car is completely marginalized, often blurred and in any case always in the background. But the relationship between the two remains ambiguous. Because women and motors have always been the object of male desire and, in images, their association has always provided to reinforce that kind of image.
Di Prospero’s subject emerges as a free, barefoot, independent, self-confident woman who knows what she wants, who travels in her car, who looks at the sea, turning her back to the viewer, towards whom she shows indifference.
The girls of Letizia Battaglia, on the contrary, seek contact with the viewer, requiring the latter to make an effort to read what it was not obvious to foresee. What do they want from the viewer? What is the relationship between those girls, their bodies, and the car which, however decentralized, stands out with its bright yellow colour? Here’s what probably triggered the negative responses: an ambiguity that the image does not dissolve. And this is because the communicative context within which the message is placed is a commercial, advertising context, where effectiveness and immediacy prevail.
The poetics of Letizia Battaglia, transposed to a place other than the original one, did not withstand, at least for many, the semantic distortions that the new context and its language imposed on the work. That said, the bewilderment of the outcome of this story still remains as the removal of the service from the social pages of the brand that had commissioned it. Once again the obtuse and levelling logic of cancel culture has interpreted these photographs in a literal way, setting up an equation that is the result of a wicked simplification for which “child + car + commercial context = sexist stereotype”.
While the actual stereotype is, above all, the relationship that is created between those contents. Letizia Battaglia’s little girls and teenagers do not wade into the car, on the contrary: they ignore it. The images never combine the ownership of the car with that of the girl; there is always a relationship of distance and extraneousness between them.
As already mentioned, the female figures rather turn their gaze towards the viewer, like the girls in the historical photographs by Letizia Battaglia, those images that have become undisputed icons, evocative of an imaginary and instances of female emancipation.
Evidently, within an advertising context, that gaze is no longer perceived with the innocent and disinterested aura of the girls in black and white in the streets of Palermo, but it became a gaze that has lost its mythical innocence to take on the biased one of advertising a commodity, moreover a commodity that has always been compromised by sexist images such as super-luxury cars. For some this has been perceived as a sacrilege, the profanation of the myth, of the archetype, by an author who had built that innocent gaze myth and put it deep into the hearts of her admirers.
Consolidated schemes, perceptual conventions, mechanisms of representation and attribution of meaning are activated in different ways according to the linguistic context in which we place ourselves. This is why a poetics of emancipation, translated within a new media milieu, ended up derailing towards a deformed, almost opposite message.