Are we not supposed to have a private conversation publicly?

A chat with conceptual artist Phillip Toledano

An image from the series “Maybe” by Phil Toledano

I meet Phillip (Phil) Toledano in Palermo, at the Antica Focacceria Basile near Teatro Massimo in the city centre, on a sunny day of April. The restaurant is crawling with customers, mostly people working for local businesses having their lunch break, slowly but steadily moving up the queue. It is the first warm day of 2017, and Scirocco- the hot wind from Africa- has started blowing welcoming the summer season. Phil has just landed from New York.

Born in London in 1968 from an American father and a French-Moroccan mother, he moved to the States in 1992, where he worked as an art director and copywriter before becoming a conceptual artist.

I am busy listing and translating Basile’s rich menu for Phil, only to find he understands Italian (and some Sicilian too) fairly well. “I’ll have a Porchetta Panini”, he goes with no hesitation. I later learn Phil has a special passion for Italy and its exuberant culture, and that his father- a former actor and artist himself- had served as a soldier in Italy during the Second World War.

A lover of Italian opera, he used to sing along with the radio and imitate Italian accent as a very young Phil observed him amuzed. It was also his father who inspired much of his artistic work, both before and after his death.

Phil is in Palermo together with British photographer Simon Norfolk. They are both tutors for this year’s Photography Internarional Masterclass led by ISSP, an education and networking platform created in Latvia and acting internationally. The Masterclass sees students and tutors gather three times a year- twice in Latvia and once in another European country- and this round the town of Menfi in southwestern Sicily was chosen.

Minimum acted as a mediator between the Masterclass and local organizations and institutions. Being a member of Minimum myself, and despite not being a photographer or enrolled in the workshops, I was lucky enough to observe Toledano, Norfolk and the students work together with a beautiful combination of excitement, fun and professionalism.

As a human rights PhD student and freelance journalist who has never formally worked in the photo industry, I was intrigued by the weekend in Menfi with the ISSP gang. In fact, much of what Phil talked about at dinner with his students, or sitting in the car as we drove back to Palermo, had little to do with photography per se.

What stroke me more than anything about him was his ability to turn the most ordinary element- like the way my Italian fellows talk to each other- into something hilarious (I definitely recommend having a look at the “dictionary of Italian hand gestures” on his Instagram).

On the last evening of the ISSP’ Sicilian adventure, Phil and Simon gave a talk about their works. I had deliberately not researched anything about them or their photography curricula. I wanted to be fully surprised, with no preconceptions or expectations of any sort. I only knew Phil came across as gifted with an outstanding sense of humour, but I had the strong feeling something very profound and sad coexisted with it. As I gradually learnt about his work during the talk, it became clear that my feeling was correct. I was not surprised though. There is always great pain behind a great sense of humour.

Phil Toledano talked about Phil Toledano that evening. About his father, his mother, his sister’s premature and tragic death, his beloved daughter and wife, his fear of passing away without leaving a mark, about his emptiness.

Yet, what is so special about dedicating a talk- a professional life in fact- to these matters? Aren’t these everybody’s fears, our most intimate and hidden torments? What purpose does it serve?

I am not trying to be unnecessarily cruel, or to over criticise Phil. I overheard a lot of people ask these very questions some hours after the talk, looking confused. However, I feel that’s precisely what made Phil’s talk- and what makes his work- worthy to me: He somehow forced me to bare the uncomfortable feeling of nakedness as he talked about my very own profound fears and shames. I felt connected to him, humanly speaking. He was no more special than I was. We were both incredibly common.

“I am talking about Phil Toledano, but I’m also talking about a lot of other people. One of the theories about art is that it is supposed to talk about life, but somehow when you talk about personal life it’s odd for many people. They think it’s narcissistic, or too intimate. Why wouldn’t I talk about these things if they are part of my life? My mother was a real believer in talking about everything (except my sister of course). I get why people don’t like it.”

How does it feel to talk about your personal life?

“The power of the things I talk about, for me, never diminishes. I’ve been saying the same words now for years, and every time I talk about my father or my sister, I feel exactly the same sadness and emotional charge I felt the first time I talked about it. Even talking about it now with you makes me feel overwhelmed with emotions. It’s funny that you can say the same stuff and it has the same power. I wonder if it will become powerless at some point.

I personally found you were very human and down to earth during the talk in Palermo. It was an unusual experience, because we are used to looking at well-known artists as some sort of Gods.

“I think you’re right. There’s a certain grandiosity in art, and in its production. There’s this sort of sense that artists are like wizards with effortless control over a magic spell which common mortals will never understand. With my projects, I am trying to debunk the idea that art, like the things art talks about, is somewhat impenetrable.”

That’s what I liked about the talk. You were evidently uncomfortable. You were not perfect.

“It would be deeply sad if I could talk about my sister or my father in a way that was not emotional. It would destroy what that work means for me. And also what it means for other people. Days With My Father was the work that changed everything for me. And it was such an amazing experience, not to just do the work, but also the experience of people’s reaction to the work. How many people have said to me that it made them start their projects about their own family. It’s beautiful to do that.”

How did your father contribute to your art?

“A very strong memory I have about my father is, when I was a kid, he would ask me “What do you want to be?”, and I would say “Well, I want to be an artist”. And then he would ask “What kind of artist?” and I would say “I’d like to be an artist that changes people’s mind in some way”. Later on, as I accompanied him in his last years, and through him, that came true.”

Your dad was an artist himself. What kind?

“He was an artist throughout my life. He was 58 when I was born, so extensively retired. He was acting, painting, sculpting, and drawing. All of it. I grew up watching my dad listening to Italian opera, singing along with it, and drawing and painting.”

What if I told you I was inspired to start my own personal project?

“I would give you this piece of advice: Do it without thinking that someone will see it. Do it thinking that no one will see it. Because if you do think that people will see it, this will change the way you do stuff. Also, you have to be OK with being naked in public, in talking about those things that is.”

Did you get any particularly strong reaction to your projects?

“For When I Was Six, I received some emails from people who had gone to school with my sister. She died in a fire while at a friend’s house when I was six years old. There were two sisters. One sister died along with mine, while the other sister got in touch with me after seeing my project. She said, “I am the sister who survived”. That was extraordinary. Similarly, after publishing Days With My Father, I got emails from people telling me they called their fathers after years of silence inspired by my work. That was a real honour.”

Is this why you keep doing what you do?

“Well, these projects did something tangible. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I think most art is useless. I include my own art in that statement too. Most of us [artists] are going around looking for obscure things to talk about, because the more obscure they are, the more a magazine will write about them, and the more interesting will they be. I’m not interested in art that doesn’t do anything for anyone.”

Is photography art?

“The content of photography can be art. I don’t think that just because it’s a photograph, makes it art. I think you could say the same about anything, right?”

How do you define yourself?

“As a conceptual artist. Everything is always about an idea. I see it this way. Being an artist is a gift, and if you get people willing to listen to you and come to your talk, it’s a privilege. So you shouldn’t dishonour that privilege by making boring stuff. You should be adding words to the vocabulary. You can’t just say the same word that someone else has said, even if it has a different pronunciation.”

Don’t you think that the most interesting art is the one that is created without thinking of a public?

“I think the only interesting art comes without thinking of a public. ”

But that’s very difficult isn’t it?

“No it’s not! It’s a dichotomy, it’s a paradox that makes sense. You can only make art without considering a public, but conversely you need a public for the art to exist in a way. Like when you make work about something personal. You cannot think of a public while you make the work because then immediately that affects the truth of what you’re saying. People may like it or dislike it. You have to say “Fuck it” and put the work out there.”

Let’s talk about your family. It seems like you have a pretty multicultural background.

“I have actually no English blood although I sound very British. My father was born in New York and grew up there. Then he lived in a bunch of many different places, among which Rome during World War II. I found a black silk scarf that he had, with a Mussolini speech printed on it. I guess he found it somewhere when he was in Italy. And he’d read the whole thing out. He used to make this hilarious Il Duce impression.”

What about your mother?

“My parents met in Morocco when the American army was liberating the country. She was French Moroccan, and must have been 15 or 16 years younger than my father. Then they went to America, and then London in the early 60s, where I was born. I lived between London and Casablanca. I guess that’s why I don’t feel English in spirit. I have an English sense of humor, and I sound English, but I think I’m much more excitable. Which is why I like Italians and Spanish very much.”

I’m surrounded by photographers lately, and I have the impression a lot of the time their questions or comments are about fear. Why do you think many photographers are afraid?

“Unlike other forms of art, where pretty much nothing has changed, for photography everything is changing, and the way of making money is disappearing. There is this kind of democratization of photography whereby everyone seems to be taking pictures. It’s all tumultuous. And I think it’s frightening for everyone.”

Do you think photography is becoming a commodity?

“Yes. Which is why I don’t think about myself as a photographer. I’m an ideas person. Ideas will never be a commodity.”

Or at least it’s much more difficult to turn them into commodities…

“Well, of course you could always sell your ideas to someone else. But if you’re a man of ideas, a woman of ideas, that’s valuable and hard to copy. The thing about photography is that it is so limited by the technology in a way. But technique is not an idea.”

Have you ever done documentary photography?

“Well, I did that project for Nat Geo last year [Mars: Inside the High-Risk, High-Stakes Race to the Red Planet] which was documentary photography. But also I would consider that the project Bankrupt is documentary photography, just as A New Kind of Beauty, and most of my other series.”

What’s your opinion of today’s documentary photography? Has it changed since you started working with photography and art in general?

“There was for a long time a very specific vernacular in documentary photography. Often, it was the content that mattered but not the way in which it was shown. In fact, if it was beautiful it was almost suspect. It was normally shitty-looking photographs with some crooked angle, grainy, or black and white. I actually think that Simon [Norfolk] is one of the people who radically changed what documentary photography was all about. Because he shoots beautiful photographs, those you want to hang in your living room. But I think documentary photography is dead anyway. It is not relevant anymore. At least, not the way it’s done.”

So is it still useful?

“I don’t think documenting things is irrelevant. But I think documentary photography as it’s been done is irrelevant. Because it all looks the same. Try to look at photo journalists’ imagery from any given award from the last 10 or 15 years. It all looks the same. Crying mothers, dead people on the ground, burnt up buildings, a hall through a broken window with something happening out there, soldiers running. There are still people who do things differently. Take Simon, or Richard Mosse. But in some ways the new documentary photography is about quantity, with those 3 or 4 images that you see over and over again. You could just do a dictionary of photo documentary cliches. In fact I was thinking about that for a while. I was talking to Simon recently, telling him we should make our own fake news and disseminate it, and see what happens. It would be interesting to look at all the iconic images and create one of your own, one that is totally untrue, release it on the web, and see what the reactions are.”

One needs considerable strength to uncover their life’s darkest events, and make them public. It’s like lifting a transparent veil that has been gently sitting over memories we did not wish to dig out. What makes the process even harder is that the people surrounding us start wishing we hadn’t lifted that veil either. It forces them to accept they too have unresolved matters to deal with someday. Here the tendency to judge what Phil does (in fact what many people do although in different ways) “inappropriate”.

“I get why people say this. But I don’t fully understand what the problem is. Is it that you are not supposed to have a private conversation publicly?”

The technological boom with which my generation grew up meant that millions of people today live their life publicly. Or watch other people’s public lives anyway. It was all normalized during the years, to the extent that if you shoot a photograph of your lunch or dinner everyday, more people will find it normal than the contrary.

It is almost fascinating though that, amidst this chaotic obsession for exhibitionism, some things remain an exception whose public endorsement sparks confusion for most. Extremely private matters, or private chats with oneself to put it in Toledano’s words, are an example.

My personal chat with Phil was beautifully unstructured. It was perhaps the first time in my life I had no question ready before an interview. I particularly enjoyed the moments of silence.

Minimum is a space dedicated to the different languages of photography and image today. It was born last year, and is located in a former warehouse in the historical centre of Palermo, Italy. It works through a combination of research, commissions, and collaborations with photographers and artists both locally and internationally.

Eileen Quinn is an Italian-Irish PhD student in human rights, and (occasional) freelance journalist. Born in Paris, she now lives and works in Palermo. She became a member of Minimum few months ago, although she followed it since the beginning.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.