Why Legendary Fashion Photographer Mario Testino Is Embracing Digital Media

Clio winner on memorable ads and building his brand

Headshot of Emma Bazilian


Current gig Fashion photographer, philanthropist and founder of creative agency MarioTestino+

Instagram @mariotestino

Age 61

What does winning a Clio lifetime achievement award mean to you?

It means a lot to win a lifetime achievement from anyone—but the Clio Awards are particularly interesting, as advertising is such a competitive industry. It's a business that is constantly searching for the new, so it's a big challenge to stay in the fight and to stay relevant. Photographers are changed at the drop of a hat. You have to be constantly questioning yourself and renewing yourself. This award makes it feel like the past 30 years of hard work, and insecurities, and redefining who I am, what I do, and how well I can relate to clients, has been recognized.

What makes a memorable fashion ad? And why is print still an important medium for fashion photography?

To me, a memorable ad is one from which you can remove the brand's name but still instinctively see it belongs to that brand. If I can do an ad for Burberry or Michael Kors, take the name off the image and have people recognize it as a Kors ad or a Burberry ad, that's what makes it successful. Consumers are the ones choosing the way we view fashion photography. I think print provides a richer and less disposable medium; it showcases the magical moments in time that a photographer captures.

Your "towel series" on Instagram, which features models and celebrities dressed in only a white towel, has been very successful. How did that project begin?

I've always worked under other people's editorial guise, and all of a sudden I have this opportunity to portray things my own way. I've always been obsessed with people's bodies, and this was a way of undressing people, but still being able to publish it! I thought it was exciting to do it on a platform like Instagram, which is all about feeding people with new ideas.

Why is a digital presence important to you and how are you continuing to build your brand on social media and online?

I'm always trying to grow and keep making my work exciting, for myself and my audience. When I started using social media, I thought it was good to treat it like a magazine, because I wanted to include my voice in social media, not just my imagery. I find it interesting because it challenges me to combine my creative and commercial sensibilities, having to think of how to not just build better pictures but to establish a wider presence in the digital world.

Your YouTube channel has a lot of behind-the-scenes videos from different projects you've worked on. Why let people into your creative process?

When I started as a photographer, it was hard to learn—there wasn't a school that actually taught you how to become a fashion photographer, largely because such a thing can't exist. You learn it as you go along. I think by showing the behind-the-scenes footage, you're allowing people to learn and see how things are done. Educating and passing on my experience is something very important to me, and it's something I enjoy.

You've shot for nearly every top fashion house. Are there any brands left that you've dreamed of working with but haven't had the chance?

One of my favorite things is having the opportunity to redefine something that has already been defined throughout the years. I'm excited about companies like Ralph Lauren and how it's going through a huge makeover. I like that idea. It's always exciting to relook at brands that are iconic, like Calvin Klein. I remember working with Eva Herzigová back in the '90s when everyone saw her as the Wonderbra girl. I wanted to use her for Calvin Klein, so I did a story of her as a butcher for Face Magazine—to help people see her through different eyes. I love doing that, and I feel that whether it's Ralph Lauren or any other company, having the chance to show people a different perspective is exciting.

How did you get involved in interior design? Is that something you're hoping to do more of? 

I find that every photograph belongs within a particular space, and that space needs to be defined before the photograph itself can be taken; I've been defining spaces for the last 35 years. I think taste can be applied to any space by choosing colors, composition and art, so the mixture of all of these elements is so interesting for me. It would be exciting to define new spaces by recreating people's houses or their offices, I have done this for myself over the years and would love to do more commercially in the future. 

Tell us about your museum in Lima and how that ties into your philanthropical work.

Growing up in Peru, we thought of ourselves as being so much less developed than the rest of the world. We came to think that we're not at the forefront of the creative fields, or shouldn't have anything to do with them. I thought that by bringing my work to Peru, I could show people that Peruvians can know success and provide a platform where local artists can be celebrated. I also wanted to attract international artists and culture, to allow those who don't have the means to go and discover the world themselves, to be inspired and to be a part of the developing cultural movement happening in Peru right now. It's the first time you've really been able to sense Peru joining the rest of the world in that way.

This story first appeared in the September 12, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.

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@adweekemma emma.bazilian@adweek.com Emma Bazilian is Adweek's features editor.