After days of backlash, Balenciaga publicly on Monday condemned child abuse and took full responsibility for the controversies surrounding two of its recent ad campaigns. But one of the photographers swept up in the firestorm, Gabriele Galimberti, said that was a little too late.
The fashion house tried to clear up some erroneous media reports that mistakenly linked elements of two different campaigns. Social media critics have been blasting the company along with photographers and other creatives involved with the shoots, as well as one of the brand’s leading fans, Kim Kardashian. The reality star and entrepreneur said Sunday that she was reevaluating her relationship with Balenciaga.
The criticism kicked off after Balenciaga released a campaign for its Gift Collection featuring six children, including some holding plush bear toys that some perceived to be strapped in bondage. That was shot in Paris by Galimberti.
A separate spring 2023 campaign was shot in a Manhattan skyscraper office setting and featured such A-listers as Nicole Kidman and Bella Hadid. Photographer Joshua Bright, who did not respond immediately to a request for comment, handled the portrait images. Still-life images of accessories amid “era-specific workplace clutter,” including one of a Balenciaga/Adidas bag resting on legal documents were shot in New York by Chris Maggio, who did not respond to interview requests Monday. Upon closer inspection, documents highlighting the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision, “United States v. Williams,” which upheld a provision of a federal child pornography law that makes it a crime to advertise, promote or present child pornography, could be seen in the background.
In an Instagram post Monday, Balenciaga said what was believed to have been a fake document turned out to be real legal papers that likely came from the filming of a television drama. Such “reckless negligence” resulted in Balenciaga filing a complaint, the company said. Despite that legal action against North Six Inc., which is not named in the post, and set designer Nicholas Des Jardins, Balenciaga took full responsibility.
North Six logistically managed the campaign in the office setting, but it was not involved with the Gift Collection campaign featuring the questionable teddy bears.
Representatives for North Six declined comment Monday, and lawyers working on behalf of the production company were not available to speak at this point. Des Jardins did not respond to media requests, nor did his agency Streeters. Balenciaga is said to be initially seeking $25 million in damages through its legal action.
Balenciaga said it is closely revising its organization and collective ways of working, reinforcing structures around its creative processes and “laying the groundwork with organizations who specialize in child protection and aim at ending child abuse and exploitation.”
Some social media critics and select members of the media mistakenly conflated the two campaigns and stated that the Supreme Court document was featured in the campaign with the children.
“Absolutely not. It was two different campaigns, two different photographers. The Supreme Court documents were not in the campaign with the children,” Galimberti said in an interview Monday. “Now Balenciaga is suing the production company [North Six] involved with the office campaign and the set designer [Des Jardins] – not me. I was not involved with that campaign.”
Above all, Galimberti wants people to know that he is not a pedophile. Shocked that certain media outlets wrote things about him “that were completely fake” without “even making a phone call,” Galimberti noted how in some instances photographs of him were featured in media reports. He alleged that The Daily Mail, Newsweek and Fox News “wrote terrible things about me. Now with my lawyers, I am [looking into] suing them. They jumped on the news and wrote things without even checking if it was the truth or not. As a journalist myself, I think it’s terrible. They really are destroying my life.”
However, in a subsequent conversation Tuesday Galimberti said after meeting with his lawyer in Milan earlier in the day that list had been revised and Newsweek and Fox News were no longer on it. In addition to The Daily Mail, the photographer said he is looking into taking legal action against a few other major news outlets later this week.
A spokesperson for The Daily Mail noted Tuesday that more specific information would be needed in order to comment.
Stating that he has not been able to sleep for the past week and is quite concerned about his personal safety, Galimberti said his family is also worried. “Luckily, I live in Italy and not in the States. Ninety percent of the messages are coming from the USA,” he said.
Contrary to media reports, Galimberti was not involved with the creative direction. With 20 years of experience as a documentary photographer, the Balenciaga campaign was his first assignment in the fashion industry. Describing the past week as “terrible,” Galimberti said he has received thousands of messages on his phone, his Instagram and Twitter accounts, and via email saying things like, “You have to die pedophile” and “You are a sick pervert.”
There have also been numerous threatening messages left on his voice mail in the middle of the night, he said. He hopes that the Balenciaga statement will mean that “this wave of s–t is stopping now. It’s been a week that I have been under attack, but I am not responsible for anything,” Galimberti said. “I really hope this scandal with Balenciaga will not destroy my career in documentary photography. I already have lost a few jobs that were scheduled for the next few weeks.”
A frequent photographer for National Geographic, an exhibition of his work slated to open Dec. 7 in Kazakhstan was just canceled due to the controversy. A few collectors have reneged on buying his prints, which typically cost $2,000 to $5,000. A shoot for a high-profile Italian musician’s latest cover has also been nixed. Speculating that the musician no longer wants to work with him due to the situation, he said, “He’s a big one so I cannot tell you his name. He’s one of the top 10.” He estimated that he has lost $10,000 in wages since the Balenciaga controversy.
Still inside the storm, he hasn’t had a chance to take a step back and analyze what has happened. As a documentarian, his first foray into fashion photography has not been a good experience, he said. Telling people’s stories through his work is what fascinates him. “When I accepted the project with Balenciaga, it was basically because they pay well. When you work as a photojournalist for magazines in Italy or Europe, they pay little. It’s not really easy to make a living,” he said. “Of course, when a big company approaches you about a two-day shoot for a good amount of money, it’s not really easy to say no — when you are in the [financial] position that I am.”
The Balenciaga job was 15 times more than what he typically earns for a one-day shoot — $400 to $500. “It’s a lot less than $50,000 and a bit more than $10,000,” the photographer said.
In the interview Monday, Galimberti said, “They made a statement one hour ago. But for me, it was too late.”
The company contacted the Milan-based creative because they liked his book “Toy Stories,” he said. During the two-day shoot in Paris, 20 Balenciaga staffers were on location, Galimberti said. “Everything was ready and decided by them. They chose the children, the location and the objects. My role was simply to photograph what I saw. Basically, I applied my documentary eye to that situation and photographed was there,” he said, adding that punk and bondage are not metiers that he works in. “To me, that [toy] bear was just one with pink hair and weird eyes.”
As for Kardashian’s response to the controversy, he said, “I have no idea about Kim Kardashian. I know her name. She is not somebody that I focus on. I am not part of this fashion industry.”
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Nov. 29 at 9:45 a.m. EST.