Features

A Shadow Remains

A conversation with Phil Toledano and Debra Klomp Ching

Editor's Note: Flak Photo is proud to feature this conversation in support of Phil Toledano's, A Shadow Remains, a multimedia story that considers the impact that love and loss have on contemporary family life. The film will be availble for online streaming beginning Tuesday, June 12, 2012. For more information, visit MediaStorm.com.


Debra Klomp Ching: It’s hard to imagine, that there is anyone unaware of Days With My Father. Two years ago, 1.2 million people had already seen the work online. How many people have visited the website now?

Phil Toledano: Last time I checked, it was over two million, which is really quite mind boggling.

Debra Klomp Ching: Days With My Father really started out—from your own account—as a way to record and appreciate your relationship with your father. And, poignantly, it was spurred by the sudden death of your mother. Do you feel that you have fulfilled that real need that we all have, to reconnect before it’s too late?

Phil Toledano: Well, the sad thing about life is that sometimes it takes something really miserable, to point out what you've been missing all along. So did I reconnect with my father—well, I never felt disconnected. But what the death of my mum pointed out to me, was the importance of being awake, of seeing what was in front of me, and remembering it. That's what I tried to do with my dad.

Debra Klomp Ching: You’ve said in the past, that the actual upload of Days With My Father to the web, was done without any real objective, except perhaps to unburden. At the time, you didn’t know what you were unburdening, are you able to articulate that now?

Phil Toledano: I'm still not sure I can explain myself very well. It was a kind of animalistic urge, to unburden myself of all the weight I had been carrying for the last few years. In some ways, I felt quite relieved to be so light.

Debra Klomp Ching: Have you felt particularly vulnerable for sharing your story? Or, have you found an additional inner strength, a more solid grounding in your relationship with family and friends?

Phil Toledano: I've never felt very vulnerable about sharing that story, in part, I suppose, because I was sharing it with strangers—who I probably would never meet. But the reaction and extraordinary feedback from so many people has made me grateful, and more aware of how lucky I was to be able to say goodbye to my dad the way I did. Also, in some ways, I do feel stronger for my story being adrift in the world. I'm not sure why, but I do.

Debra Klomp Ching: This journey and experience must also impact on your own family. Now, you’re the father and husband, rather than the son.

Phil Toledano: I've found it quite hard to come to grips with the idea that there is no one left alive who knew me as a child, as a teenager, as a baby. The idea that those memories only exist for me now, is quite sad. And yes, it's odd, no longer being a 'son'. But on the other hand, all the qualities that my parents left me, instilled in me, are drawn in sharp relief by their absence. I can now see their gifts to me clearly, and I’m grateful. I miss their advice, in a way that I never did before.

Debra Klomp Ching: You’ve shared a pivotal experience in your life, something so incredibly personal and intimate, yet something that is undeniably universal. How have you been affected by the collective responses to the story?

Phil Toledano: The annoying thing about clichés is that they're true. So, when I say that the response has made me aware of how similar we all are, it's boring, but quite true. Not to get all John Lennon, but love belongs to all of us. It's just that we let other things get in the way of seeing that.

Debra Klomp Ching: There have also been a huge number of individuals sending and posting messages. One person contacted you and offered to translate your text into Portuguese. Are there other points of direct contact that you’ve had with people through your story?

Phil Toledano: I've had quite a few Skype calls with total strangers, who just wanted to talk about taking photographs of their own parents, and were looking for some advice. I recently received an email from someone in China who is trying to get people together to publish the book. People seem to feel that this story belongs to all of us—and so it does.

Debra Klomp Ching: And of course, there’s been extensive global media interest. Has your relationship with the photographs, the website and book altered due to it, essentially, taking on a life of its own?

Phil Toledano: Well, of course, I often wonder what my parents—especially my dad—would have made of it all. I tried to explain the concept of the Internet to my father once—he was 95 or 96 at the time. He asked if it was 'in color', and 'where was it'. As it turns out, it's quite hard explaining something so intangible. My parents exist, first and foremost in my heart. I don't need the photos to remind me of them, but somehow the experience of making the photographs and writing about them, made me remember all that I need to remember. I do look at photos of my parents, and think about physical aspects of how they were. I remember how soft my father's face was after I’d shaved him, the way I could feel my mother's love, sometimes, when she looked at me.

Debra Klomp Ching: You were recently approached by MediaStorm to make a film about Days With My Father. What is the film about? Is it a documentation of the whole experience?

Phil Toledano: It's about lots of things— my parents, my relationship with them, the website, the book and the experience of both. It's also about me as a father, and my family as it stands now. And of course, it's about love. For my parents, my wife, my child. When I see the film, it's tremendously emotional for me—I inevitably start snuffling into my hankie. I don't know what it'll mean to other people, but it's a thing of perfect crystalline beauty to me.

Debra Klomp Ching: Behind all of this, still, there remains the story of Phil and his dad! A strange question perhaps, but has your relationship with your family (dad, mum, sister), changed as a result of Days With My Father?

Phil Toledano: Well, in some ways, it's made me regret not being a better son, and better brother. I wish there were things I could have told my mum, before she died. But I guess life is like that. It's imperfect, and by the time you've thought of everything you'd like to say, some of the people you'd like to say those things to aren't around anymore. I'm more aware of what they gave me. I'm more aware of how lucky I was to be their son, and to have basked in so much love.

Debra Klomp Ching: What do you believe is the legacy of Days With My Father?

Phil Toledano: I think 'Days' will be the best thing I ever do. If I croak tomorrow, at least I'll have done one good thing, and to be honest, that's a lot more than I expected.

Phillip Toledano is a conceptual artist for whom everything starts with a idea. The themes of his work are primarily socio-political, although he has of late strayed into the deeply personal. The idea determines the execution. Consequently, his work varies in medium, from photography to installation, sculpture to painting. His first book, entitled Bankrupt (photographs of recently vacated offices) was published by Twin Palms in 2005. The second book, Phonesex (again by Twin Palms) came out in December of 2008. His third, Days With My Father, was published by Chronicle, and was released in June of 2010. His newest book, A New Kind of Beauty (Portraits of people who've recreated themselves through plastic surgery), was  published by Dewi Lewis in 2011. Toledano's work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Aperture, and Harpers, amongst others.

Debra Klomp Ching is the owner and director of the Klompching Gallery in New York, founded in 2007 in partnership with Darren Ching. Previously, she was the Executive Director of Pavilion (UK), served as an Officer at the Arts Council of England and was a lecturer in photographic practice at the University of Coventry (UK) and history of photography at Derby University (UK). Her experience in the photography industry spans more than two decades—she has participated in several notable photography review festivals, panel presentations and conferences, curated exhibitions in Europe, Canada and the US, juried several photography awards and contributed to online and print publications on the subject of photography. She is an international adviser to the Executive Director of CENTER (Santa Fe) an adviser to the Center for Fine Art Photography (Fort Collins) and a photo editor for At Length Magazine. Klomp Ching has a BA (Hons) in Photographic Studies, an MA in Critical History and Theory of Photography, a PG Diploma in New Media Management and has attended graduate studies in Curating.

Posted on Monday, June 11, 2012.

 

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