On a bench in a leafy park, a nurse stares distractedly at her phone while an old man sits listlessly in a wheelchair beside her. Meanwhile, an ageing drunk stumbles through the rain, his thin gray hair sticking to his sallow skin. These are just some of the fates of Phillip Toledano, the man who makes a habit of imagining the worst.
Of course, it’s not uncommon to think about ageing and death. In fact, as the world’s population grows older, the fear about what we can expect in our twilight years is perhaps more prevalent than ever before. But while we are able to take steps such as saving for our retirement and looking after our health, how much can we really prepare for what awaits us down the line?
Born in London towards the end of the Swinging Sixties, Toledano is of French, Moroccan and American heritage. Growing up, he watched his artist father draw and paint, attending his shows and developing a passion for the arts. Then, at the age of just ten, he asked his parents for his first camera.
But instead of merely photographing the world around him, Toledano exhibited a startling creativity from a young age. Taking old ski magazines, he cut out the mountainous landscapes and used them as a backdrop. Then, with the help of figurines and flour “snow,” he created and photographed his own Alpine scenes.
As an adult, Toledano entered the world of advertising. But while he managed to work his way up to being a creative, he left to pursue a career as a photographer at the relatively young age of 34. Three years later, his first book was published. Entitled Bankrupt, it featured images of abandoned offices that had been left to decay.
Meanwhile, Toledano’s work began appearing in top publications around the world. In fact, his career seemed to be going from strength to strength, and the photographer considered himself to be living a charmed life. But then, in 2006 his mother passed away, and he began to see things through less rose-tinted glasses.
“When you’re privileged and lucky the way I have been, you expect your whole life will be like that,” Toledano explained in a 2015 interview with The New York Times. “When my mother died, it made me realize that you don’t have any control over your destiny at all. It’s delusional to think you do.”
Now tasked with looking after his elderly father, Toledano found himself in the midst of an existential crisis. In order to ease his angst, he created a series of photographs, “Days With My Father,” in which he documented life with his ailing charge. However, the project did little to ease his struggle.
Eventually, Toledano realized that he needed to face his fears. “I want to know what’s going to happen to me,” his friend Joshua Seftel recalled him saying during a 2016 interview Seftel gave to The New York Times. “In the future.” And amazingly, Toledano would attempt to answer that question through his most ambitious project yet.
At the start of the project, Toledano took a relatively straightforward approach to investigating what his future might have in store. By undertaking a DNA test, he was able to assess his likelihood of suffering from health problems such as obesity and heart disease. Shockingly, despite his slim build, he discovered that he stood a strong chance of experiencing both later in life.
Not content with these revelations, Toledano also began consulting fortune tellers, keen to see what they could tell him about his fate. And sadly, they painted a picture that was no less bleak. In fact, when he asked them about what troubles there could be waiting in his future, they suggested that alcoholism and even suicide might be in store.
Having been presented with a whole host of potential fates, Toledano decided that he needed to live out each scenario in turn. So, he wrote a list of several possible future selves and set about coming to terms with each of them. But in order to accurately portray each scenario, he was going to need some help.
Next, Toledano sought the help of Adam Morrow, a New York-based artist specializing in special effects and prosthetics. Together, the pair set about transforming Toledano into each of his future personas using a combination of makeup and specially designed masks. And ultimately, the effects were staggering.
Applying the prosthetics to create each of the photographer’s alter egos would take several hours. Then, when the transformation was complete, a team consisting of a stylist as well as a number of actors and assistants would help to capture the unnerving results on film.
In one scenario, Toledano seized upon the DNA results that suggested he had a high chance of contracting heart disease in the future. Using makeup and prosthetics, Morrow was able to give the photographer the appearance of a stroke victim – bringing him face to face with one of his own deepest fears.
In another shoot, Toledano was transformed into a plastic surgery addict, all razor-sharp cheekbones and snappy dress sense. Next, he became a pale-skinned businessman, captured standing stony-faced as armed police accompanied him to jail. Apparently, in this scenario, the future Toledano has been arrested for insider trading.
For Toledano, it was a difficult process. As well as having to cope with the demands of being both photographer and subject on a series of shoots, he found the process emotionally draining, too. “It was really exhausting because I was confronting the darkest possible experiences,” he explained. “I was making tangible the worst possible things I could imagine. It’s not enjoyable to see yourself like that.”
The project also posed challenges for Toledano’s wife Carla, who was concerned that the role-playing would send her husband spiraling into depression. However, despite his partner’s fears, Toledano pressed on with the project. And over the course of three years, he brought dozens of different personas to life.
Eventually, Toledano declared that the project was over. And remarkably, it appeared to have been a success. Apparently, he no longer frets so much about the future and is able to enjoy life in the present again. In fact, Carla has even suggested that the lengthy process could be used as a type of therapy designed to help individuals come to terms with their own mortality.
In June 2015 Toledano published Maybe – a book chronicling his idiosyncratic attempts at predicting the future. Packed with images featuring all of the photographer’s potential identities, it provides a fascinating insight into the uncertainties of the ageing process. “Very few people get the opportunity to be 45 and 95 in the same day,” he admits.