Gabriele Galimberti, the photographer who took pictures of children carrying teddy bears wearing S&M outfits for Balenciaga’s recent ad campaign, says he has received death threats in the aftermath of the scandal.
Speaking to the Guardian, he said: “I get messages like ‘we know where you live’. ‘We are coming to kill you and your family.’ ‘We are going to burn your house.’ ‘You have to kill yourself, fucking paedophile.’” He said 90% of the messages were from people in the US.
Galimberti worked on the images of children holding teddy bears in bondage gear, and not the Adidas x Balenciaga campaign featuring a handbag on top of documents detailing a court case about child pornography. However, the two campaigns have often been shared together on Twitter, leading to the assumption that Galimberti worked on both. He says media outlets took these images of the two campaigns from social media and published them together. He is suing four media outlets as a result.
Galimberti was clear he had little input into the look of the images he took before the shoot. “I’m a documentary photographer. I photograph what I find there … For me, if the room is red or yellow, it doesn’t make any difference.”
In a statement released on Instagram on 22 November, Balenciaga said it was taking legal action “against the parties responsible for creating the set and including unapproved items for our spring 23 campaign photoshoot”.
Galimberti posted a response to the statement on 23 November, denying he had a role in decisions around the objects in the images.
The brand and the creative director, Demna (who does not use his surname), have since apologised and taken responsibility for the images, but Galimberti, who was not the subject of the now-dropped lawsuit, says Balenciaga’s delay led to further abuse.
“I was writing [Balenciaga] emails every day – two or three or four emails per day – telling them, ‘guys, people are looking for me. They say that they want to come here and kill me. Please do something. Write a new statement.’” He said Balenciaga suggested he set his Instagram account to private in order to limit the messages.
In response to the Guardian’s request for comment, Balenciaga’s representatives sent the previously shared statements from Demna and the chief executive, Cédric Charbit, apologising for the campaign.
Galimberti described his tightly controlled experiences on set with the Balenciaga team, first taking pictures of mannequins in test pictures before the children were photographed in the poses.
“We took some photos and then the photos were going from my camera to someone’s computer and then they were sending these photos to [someone at] the headquarters of Balenciaga,” he says. “When they say OK, we simply replaced the mannequin with a real kid.” He does not know if the person approving the photographs was Demna. Galimberti did not meet or speak to the designer at any point.
The models used in the shoot were the children of Balenciaga employees, who accompanied them to the shoot. Galimberti says the parents of the children carrying the bear bags did not raise concerns. “When they saw those bags, everybody was telling them they were punk. Nobody ever mentioned BDSM.”
Galimberti said he saw the connection to the punk aesthetic and alarm bells did not ring. “I can recognise if we are going too far or not, but in that occasion I trust them and I didn’t see anything so wrong,” he said.
This is the first time Galimberti has worked on a fashion campaign. He was previously known for Toy Stories, a series of images of children surrounded by their toys. Another project, The Ameriguns, released in 2020, photographed Americans across the US with their personal firearms. That campaign also went viral.
“[The Balenciaga campaign] is not the first time that I was under a shit storm,” he says. “That time people were accusing me [of being] a crazy Democrat that hates guns and so I was ready to defend myself from that accusation … I can say, ‘Yes, I’m against guns.’ But when you are accused to be a paedophile? How can you defend yourself?”
He said he took the Balenciaga job because the fee was 20 times what he would be paid for documentary work. However, he said he had since lost work including a project with National Geographic and an exhibition.