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A Photographer Gets Old — Over And Over — In 'The Many Sad Fates'

Oct 1, 2016
Originally published on October 1, 2016 7:30 pm

A friend of photographer Phillip Toledano once said "He is the most self-absorbed person I've ever met — but he wears it well."

The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano is a new short film in which the photographer, with the assistance of makeup artists, fortune tellers, and psychics, disguises himself as the various fates life might one day hold for him: Ending up a homeless alcoholic, a white-collar criminal cuffed and taken away by police, or a lonely senior, feeding a small dog from his plate — and more.

It's an art project Toledano began after the dementia and death of his father. "Life is so full of right angles," he says in the film. "There are so many possibilities of what's ahead of you. And you have no sense of what they're like."

The film was an official selection of the Tribeca film festival, and is one of the New York Times' Op-Docs.


Interview Highlights

On his frame of mind as he worked on the film

When I work on projects, they have sort of a gravitational pull. I'm compelled to do them. And often I'm not sure why I'm compelled to do them until I've finished them. But everyone who was important to me had died in my family — my mother, my father, my aunt, my uncle in the last three years. And then my daughter was born. So my life felt entirely different and I felt entirely alone.

And I had always been a very lucky person. I've had wonderful parents and they've given me everything. And when you are lucky, you always assume you'll continue to be lucky. And when your life takes a sharp turn, it's shocking and it's surprising. And that was the impetus behind this project ... and I know it sounds so entirely self-absorbed, but I loved my parents dearly, and the idea that they were going to suddenly die — it's a concept we all understand, but the reality seems unreal ... and that got me obsessed about what other dark turns might life have in store for me.

On the process of creating and filming his fates

It's not the end result — what's interesting about it and what was extraordinary for me is ... the way in which the world sees you differently. As you age, over a period of 30 or 40 or 50 years, you age incrementally, and you don't see how the world sees you differently. But when you go from 45 to say 95, and you're a man in a wheelchair being pushed by a nurse, then you realize how radically differently the world sees you. You are refuse, you are nothing ... I'm not claiming I know what it feels like exactly, but I have a tiny sense of what it's like to feel how the world sees you differently.

On the photo of himself in a cubicle farm

People ask me what's the most frightening picture for me, and for me it's the man in an office — because what does that mean if I'm in an office? It means I've failed as an artist.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A friend of Phillip Toledano the photographer says, he is the most self-absorbed person I've ever met. But he wears it well.

"The Many Sad Fates Of Mr. Toledano" is a new short film in which the photographer, with the assistance of makeup artists, fortune tellers and psychics, disguises himself as the various fates life might one day hold for him - to become a drunken stumblebum on the street, a white-collar criminal cuffed and taken away by police or a lonely senior feeding a small dog from his plate.

Or it's an art project Phil Toledano began after the dementia and death of his father.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MANY SAD FATES OF MR. TOLEDANO")

PHILLIP TOLEDANO: I guess, then, I started thinking a lot about the thing that I'm working on now, the idea of the way in which life is so full of right angles. There are so many possibilities ahead of you. And you just have no sense of what they're like.

SIMON: "The Many Sad Fates Of Mr. Toledano" was an official selection at the Tribeca Film Festival. It's now a video on Op-Docs of The New York Times. It's directed by Joshua Seftel. And Phil Toledano slow joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

TOLEDANO: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: What was your frame of mind as you went through this three-year project?

TOLEDANO: When I work on projects, they have sort of a gravitational pull. I'm compelled to do them. And often, I'm not sure why I'm compelled to do them until I finish them. But everyone who is important to me had died in my family - my mother, my father, my aunt, my uncle - in the last three years.

And then my daughter was born. And so my life felt entirely different. And I felt entirely alone. And I had always been a very lucky person. I've had wonderful parents. And they've given me everything. And when you are lucky, you always assume you'll continue to be lucky. And when your life takes a sharp turn, it's shocking, and it's surprising.

And that was the impetus behind this project. I just - I was so surprised by the idea that things could go wrong. And I know it sounds so entirely self-absorbed. But I loved my parents dearly. And the idea that they were going to suddenly die - it's a concept we all understand. But the reality seems unreal.

So when my mother did die, and I found myself taking care of my father, it was not something I'd imagined at all. And that got me obsessed about, what other dark turns might life have in store for me?

SIMON: Let me ask about some of the - and my terminology might fall short here - some of the poses that you adopt?

TOLEDANO: Sure.

SIMON: A drunken man on a train platform.

TOLEDANO: Yes.

SIMON: Were you conscious of people looking at you or not looking at you? - come to think of it.

TOLEDANO: That's the most fascinating thing about this entire project. It's not the end result. What was interesting about it and what was extraordinary for me was the idea - the way in which the world sees you differently.

As you age over a period of 30 or 40 or 50 years, you age incrementally. And you don't see how the world sees you differently. But when you go from 45 to, say, 95, and you're a man in a wheelchair being pushed by a nurse, then you realize how radically differently the world sees you. You are refuse. You are nothing when you're an octogenarian in a wheelchair.

When you're a drunkard on a train platform, you are avoided. When you are obese, you're looked at differently. When you're homeless, you're looked at differently. So for me, that was the power - I'm not claiming I know what it feels like, exactly. But I have a tiny sense of what it's like to feel how the world sees you differently.

SIMON: You mentioned being the man in the wheelchair. In some ways, I found this the most heart-rending in that you had a caretaker who was just on his smartphone.

TOLEDANO: Right.

SIMON: He was ignoring you.

TOLEDANO: Well, that photograph was the first photograph I took for the whole series. And that picture I shot fairly soon after my father died. And that was exactly what I would do with my dad. I would take him to the park in his wheelchair. And then he would fall asleep. And I would text my friends. So, essentially, in that picture, I'm being my father. And it was the hardest picture I had to take.

SIMON: At one point, you become a man - looks like he's being bored to death in a cubicle farm.

TOLEDANO: (Laughter) Well, it's funny. You picked up on all the interesting images. People oft ask me, what's the most frightening picture for me? And for me, it's the man in an office because - what does that mean if I'm in an office? It means I've failed as an artist.

SIMON: I think a lot of people will find it most upsetting to look at the pose of you as a man who has apparently slit open his wrists in a bathtub.

TOLEDANO: Yes.

SIMON: That would signify what to you?

TOLEDANO: I guess I had nothing else to live for.

SIMON: See, for some people, that would be the most difficult thing of all - to not have a character they could play - but to simply be still and alone with yourself. I don't mean to bring it up all over again.

(LAUGHTER)

TOLEDANO: No. I mean, for me, in some ways, that was the easiest because I just had to lie there. I mean, I - look, I don't like being in front of the camera. I don't like acting. I don't like having my picture taken. I don't like how much it costs. I don't like the production that was involved. But that image was curiously peaceful to make.

SIMON: Now, is that because maybe a lot of us fear death less than we fear insignificance?

TOLEDANO: I think so. I think - other than a tragic or terrible death, I think that the idea that your life might not work out the way you want it to work out - I think that's more frightening - certainly was to me. I mean, this project is not really - it's not about death. It's about the right angles in life.

SIMON: I wonder if, in some ways, applying yourself to this for three years was a form of recovery.

TOLEDANO: Oh, absolutely. I did a body of work with my father called "Days With My Father." And it was about me and my dad taking care of each other, in a way, when he had dementia. And with that work, I realized that I had discovered a way to have a dialogue with myself, a way to make sense of things that were happening to me in my life.

And so I did a series of projects after that - and maybe is the final iteration of that, as a way of trying to make sense of the things that life does to us.

SIMON: Phil Toledano, who stars in various disguises in the new short film "The Many Sad Fates Of Mr. Toledano," thanks so much for being with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.