In the last five years, British photographer Phillip Toledano has turned the lens on his life and his family. With Days With My Father, he dealt with his mother’s passing and the impact the loss had on his father, who suffered from dementia. In A Shadow Remains, he addressed his father’s death, which, he says, showed him the power of unapologetic love. And, in The Reluctant Father, he studied how the birth of his daughter, dreaded at first, changed his life for the better.
In his latest book, When I Was Six, Toledano goes back in time, to the moment when his sister Claudia died in a fire. He was just 6, then, and, to this day, he doesn’t remember how he coped with the unexpected loss. “I don’t have any memories of my life after she died, except for this kind of peculiar fascination with space travel and astronomy,” Toledano tells TIME. “I think it was a way of being somewhere else, far from what had happened.”
After the death of his parents, Toledano found a box of Claudia’s things that his mother had kept. “Clothes, toys, health records, notes she wrote,” he says. “But also, everything to do with her death. It was a museum of sorts. But it was also a second chance; a chance to know my sister; to understand the pain my parents carried, and the strength it took not to bury me along with my sister.”
In When I Was Six, Toledano mixes text, still lifes of these objects with atmospheric space images he created in a fish tank. “It took me a year to have the courage to spend time with this stuff,” he says. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
Particularly poignant is a photo album Toledano found. On one page, he’s portrayed with his sister, smiling in Casablanca. On the opposite page, he’s alone, laughing and “ready for sportsday.” “That photo kind of brought me to my knees,” he says. “I couldn’t believe the date. It was two weeks after she died and I looked so normal.”
When I Was Six is deeply personal exploration of Toledano’s past — a study that started with Days With My Father. “When your parents die, they leave you with a lot of unopened boxes that you can choose to open or not,” he tells TIME. “You can choose to confront the things they’ve left you. And I guess the last five years have been a series of confrontations. It’s about deciding to tacked these things and trying to make sense of them.”
When I Was Six is also a way for Toledano to say goodbye to his sister, something, he thinks, his parents tried to shelter him from when he was younger. “I can’t imagine what it must be like to have your kid disappear,” he says. “So I don’t fault my parents. I don’t know if you can understand, when you’re 6, what it means when someone dies.”