Toledano’s faces

Phillip Toledano, from Gamers, 2003

Phillip Toledano is an enterprising photographer from the U.S. I recently posted about his satirical project America, the Gift Shop.

The startling image above is from a series on emotion and facial expression. It looks like someone inflicting pain, or receiving it. Could it have been shot in a gym, where pain is the currency? Or perhaps an acting class, with students performing scenes of violence? These are all good ideas and I should follow them up with my camera, since I’m interested in representations of the face. But they are not how Toledano captured the image, one of a series of intense portraits of emotion which you can see it at

“I wondered if there was a way to unconsciously tease out aspects of people’s personality, and capture it on film. So I had them play video games.”

Toledano’s toy

Phillip Toledano, Abu Ghraib Bobble-head figurine, 2008

This item is atrocious isn’t it? The worst possible taste – a toy figure celebrating a photograph of torture. Its creator, Phillip Toledano, made it as part of an installation on the disasters of the Bush presidency, now thankfully behind us:

“AMERICA THE GIFT SHOP is an installation project that reflects the foreign policy of the Bush/Cheney years through the fun-house mirror of American commerce. My palette is the vernacular of retail tourism.”

It’s a satirical piece that dared to target both the presidency and our capacity to commercialize almost anything. And if you think torture could never be commercialized, just remember that Jesus Christ got similar treatment and the Church has been selling trinkets of it ever since (many of them sado-masochistic nudes!) You can see the complete installation of this project at

The original image of the Iraqi torture victim is an example of the potency of single photographs to scorch our memory – perhaps the word ‘brand’ would be more accurate. It was so deeply shocking that you can never forget it, like the shots of the Twin Towers. What is it about the phenomenology of the photograph that it burns us so deeply, in ways that paintings do not?

The figurine also is an example of photography metamorphosing into sculpture, of the 2D extruding itself into 3D. It is a curious instance of species cross-breeding, the giant sculpture of the Iwo Jima soldiers raising the flag is a further example. Normally a particular medium, photography, sculpture or painting, is distinct and the attributes of one are not found in another. But a sculpture made out of a photograph? It’s a strange and magical thing, like a fish with feathers or a chicken with gills.