Mr. Toledano Photographed His Death Dozens of Times

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, his results were riddled with 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 takes a psychological toll on him.

“The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano” was directed by Joshua Seftel and produced by SmartyPants Pictures. It is part of The Atlantic Selects, an online showcase of short documentaries from independent creators, curated by The Atlantic.