Mr. Toledano: A meditation on death or narcissistic empathy?

The Many Sad Fates of Mr. Toledano is an intriguing documentary following Phillip Toledano’s quest to “know what’s going to happen to me…in the future”.

Basically, Toledano is a successful photographer who takes a DNA test and visits fortune tellers to find out how he may die. He then gets a professional make-up artist to transform him into an obese person, a stroke victim, a person obsessed with plastic surgery, a bath-tub suicide, a homeless drunk, a depressed office worker and so on. Toledano then orchestrates scenarios and photographs these potential future selves.

Watching the documentary, I initially thought of Toledano’s creations as modern versions of the ancient practice of meditating on death – albeit in a very elaborate and expensive form. Speaking of the ancient Greek practice, Michel Foucault describes meditating on death as,

placing yourself, in thought, in the situation of someone who is in the process of dying, or who is about to die, or who is living his last days.

  • Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, 357.

However, as the documentary continued and Toledano reflected on his experiences as “being” one of his potential selves it seemed to be less a matter of Toledano projecting and experiencing his own demise, but more a gauche fantasy in how terribly depressing life would be as a fat person or office worker or to suffer a stroke.

In documenting these experiences Toledano does not appear to be following Jacob Riis and the way he experienced and exposed “how the other half lives“. Rather, it seems to be an individualistic project (not itself a bad thing) that neither meditates on coming death or meaningfully engages with the lived experiences of the dying, depressed, ageing or the outcast. Instead, I was reminded of Pulp’s Common People‘:

‘Cause everybody hates a tourist
Especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh

Perhaps this is all too harsh. I do like the way Toledano emphasises the contingency of the present and openness of the future. He entertains the possibility that despite occupying a privileged position today, like Job, his tomorrow may be very different. However, this thought does not seem to transform his present in any significant way, at least as documented on camera.

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