Will we get sick? Will our families be okay? Will we have enough money? Will we end up all alone? It is only human to be scared of the unknown, but those who suffer from anxiety tend to live in a state of fear. The more you worry, the more you get lost in a maze of unpredictable possibilities.

Add being confronted with mortality to that preexisting anxiety, and you start to break down. Nobody knows this better than a famous New York-based artist who became absolutely terrified after his life was turned upside down. For him, the only way back to the present was to face all his demons, head on…

Phillip Toledano was born and raised in London by his French Moroccan mother and his American father. Later, he moved to New York and became one of the most sensational photographers of modern-day America.

 In New York, Phil built quite professional life for himself. His work was featured on the cover of magazines like The New Yorker and Esquire as well as in galleries and photography books. Perhaps his biggest accomplishments, however, were his marriage and his daughter.

Mr. Toledano

Being a husband and a father didn’t come easy for Phil. He told his wife Carla they would be together forever, but when his anxiety kicked in, he became afraid of losing her and their daughter Loulou.

To capture his worries, he published a photo series titled “The Reluctant Father.” It wasn’t exactly a secret that fear gripped him. Carla and her mother called him a worrywart, as he worried about everything, from the immediate future to the long run.

Mr. Toledano

As the years passed, Phil’s anxiety became worse and he grew to fear almost everything. Desperate, he wondered if transforming his anxiety into art could help him, so in 2013, he began working on a project he called “Maybe” to find out.

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The first step in what he hoped would be a revolutionary project? Order a DNA test and reveal what illnesses he was genetically predisposed to. What horrible illnesses, he wondered, might be waiting in his future?

The second step, before any photography even came into the picture, was to see several fortune tellers and urge them to tell him only the dark parts of his future. Phil wasn’t looking for reassurance or positive promises — he wanted to be scared.

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With these parts of his project done, Phil could imagine enough horrid versions of his future self. It was time to get to work. Over the following weeks, Phil took self portraits and made some, well, minor adjustments…


These weren’t glamorous self-portraits. Each picture showed Phil with signs of strokes, obesity, and other bad turns inspired by his DNA analysis and the fortune tellers’ predictions.

Mr. Toledano

His wife, Carla, was skeptical. She had always been supportive of her husband’s work but this project worried her. Was visualizing his anxieties a healthy way for Phil to deal with his restlessness? And why, she wondered, did none of his futures include her or Loulou?

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Well, when a fortune teller told Phil he should envision a positive future for himself, he hired models to portray his wife and daughter many years from now, celebrating the success of his work. Still, those shots felt out of place, like they didn’t belong in the series.

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That’s because Phil’s goal was to capture images of potential futures that scared him: growing old with his wife and daughter didn’t. By enacting dire situations on film, he was confronting himself — and a serious problem he’d recently encountered.

Mr. Toledano

Before Phil ever started the “Maybe” project, he received a phone call from his aging father. His mother wasn’t waking up, you see. She’d had an aneurysm in her sleep and slipped away in the night — and she brought a secret with her.

His father had been suffering for dementia for several years. Mom never told him because — in keeping with her overprotective tendencies — she didn’t want her son to worry.

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Suddenly, it was up to Phil to take care of his father, and it was no easy task. He watched his father’s pain and suffering drag on. The only comfort they’d both find was when Phil photographed his father, something they always enjoyed.

Mr. Toledano

But then even his father passed, and a realization smacked Phil: the end of life is difficult. People suffer from diseases, their loved ones slowly disappear, careers end, and you could end up all alone.

It was that sudden awareness of mortality that scared the life out of Phil but also inspired him creatively and pushed him to face his fears. He didn’t necessarily want to create this project — he needed to create it, to live it, and to see it with his own eyes.

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There were other ways Phil struggled with his project. For one, he hated sitting in the make-up chair for hours at a time. “I know [the artist’s] job is very painstaking and he’s doing amazing,” he said, “but sometimes I want to kill him when he’s working on me.”

The second, more prominent issue was the effect everything was having on his family. Carla felt distant from him, and Phil’s anxieties made it hard to connect with Loulou. “Why can’t you see a therapist like everyone else?” Carla asked.

Mr. Toledano

Still, Phil continued his project for weeks, months, and, eventually, three years. The more he exposed himself to his fears, the more therapeutic his work became. He was slowly starting to realize some things are inevitable or unpredictable — that’s simply a part of life.

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When Carla finally got to see the final prints after watching from the sidelines for so long, she was relieved. “I like them now,” she said. “I’m glad that he did it. He’s changed in a good way.” 

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 “Looking at the darkest possibilities made me rediscover the value and the beauty of what’s in front of me, and to appreciate those things more,” Phil said, before returning to life and love with his family. 

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