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The Man Who Photographed His Future Deaths

Dec 11, 2018 | 831 videos
Video by Joshua Seftel via Smartypants Pictures

Phillip Toledano’s obsession with death began with a DNA test. When his father was diagnosed with terminal dementia, the elder Toledano came to live with his son, who would care for him during his harrowing, drawn-out final days. This got Toledano, a photographer, thinking about his own mortality. When, and how, would he die? He purchased a mail-order DNA test to try to find some answers. Like the average person’s results, his contained moderate risk factors for various diseases and conditions.  

Eventually, Toledano’s father passed away. Soon after, Toledano ran into a friend from college, Joshua Seftel, who had also just lost his dad. “Phil talked about this new ‘mortality’ project he was thinking about doing with psychics and prosthetics,” Seftel told The Atlantic. “I’m sure it resonated with me in part because I was grappling with a lot of the same things Phil was dealing with. So I asked him if I could film his process.”

At the time, neither Seftel nor Toledano could imagine that the “painstaking” process, as the filmmaker described it, would go on for three long years. During that time, Toledano would don elaborate prosthetics, step onto vivid sets, and photograph himself “experiencing” fantasies of his own future demise—dozens of times over. As shown in Seftel and Smartypants Pictures’ short documentary, The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano, the photographer transformed himself into a homeless man, an obese man, a criminal, a stroke victim, and a man who has just committed suicide, among other morbid projections. The process took a psychological toll on him.

“When he first told me he was doing this thing, I said, ‘Oh my god, can’t you just see a therapist like a normal person?’” Toledano’s wife, Clara, said in the film.

Seftel, observing the tension the project was causing between Toledano and his wife, said he began to wonder if Toledano could complete his journey without damaging or destroying his marriage. What kind of commitment does an artist have to make for his work to succeed? Seftel remembered asking himself while his friend labored to stage the graphic photographs. Could healing come from creating these photos, or was it a destructive act?

In the film, Toledano explains that the impetus for the project was to expunge his bleak obsession by facing it head-on. “Life is so full of right angles,” he said. “There are so many possibilities ahead of you, and you just have no sense of what they’re like. I want to be honest to the unpredictability of life … I’ve got to do the things that frighten me the most for this project to work the best.”

When the project was finally complete, Seftel admitted that he was “surprised and fascinated” by the resulting photographs—and, particularly, by the impact the process had on Toledano, who seemed better able to live in the present.

“I can’t help think that it might be good to stare at our greatest fears—to study our darkest possible futures,” Seftel said. “After all, if we’re going to worry about our fate, why not take a peek at exactly what we’re worried about?”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.