WAR-TOYS is an ongoing, not-for-profit photo series by Brian McCarty. Since 2011, Brian has been traveling to war zones and refugee camps to collaborate with children who have been affected by armed conflict. Drawings and spoken accounts - gathered through art-based interviews - serve as art direction for Brian's photographs of locally found toys, placed and posed at locations known to the children. The project uses principles and practices of expressive art therapy to safely gather and articulate children's unseen accounts of war.
To a child, whoever is shooting at them is the "bad guy."
WAR-TOYS is intended to be apolitical and neutral, showing war from the perspective of innocents. To a child, whoever is shooting at them is the “bad guy." Trying to make sense of it while struggling with the resulting trauma is how cycles of violence perpetuate and grow. By looking at these children’s accounts through a consistent approach, vast differences between cultures and beliefs disappear, leaving a shared human condition and basis for understanding.
Brian has enlisted experts in expressive therapy to develop the methodology behind the project. The goal above all else is to safely engage potentially traumatized children in the storytelling process. This begins through carefully designed art-based interviews, conducted in group settings organized by local and international NGOs. Boys and girls are introduced to the project and invited to draw a story from their life that they want shared.
The drawings that the children create are often the beginning of longer conversations with an onsite therapist. In the process of sharing their artwork, children reveal the details that are most important or impactful to them. Some elements are buried – as if to protect them – in seemingly chaotic scenes. Others are shown directly in stark images of daily life in a war zone.
Toy soldiers are as ubiquitous as the AK-47.
The resulting photographs are based upon these documented interviews and the drawings that the children leave behind. Toys are sourced from nearby venders, borrowed from the community, or created through group activities with the children. The use of locally found toys and toy-objects is meant to provide subtle commentary on socioeconomic conditions. However, so far, Brian has found the same plastic, Chinese-made arsenals in every war zone and refugee camp in which he's worked. Toy soldiers are as ubiquitous as the AK-47.
These playthings are photographed on location, always within the current living conditions of the child and often at the exact spot where described events occurred. Because of the potential for re-traumatizing or otherwise endangering the children, they typically do not accompany Brian on the photo shoots.
The fears and traumas affecting children who have survived war are expressed through the life given to their toys. These surrogates take on emotions too difficult to process directly, both for the children as well as most of the public at large. When confronted with graphic images showing the true costs of war, most people turn away - literally and metaphorically. Their repulsion or numbness protects their psyche from being damaged. War is so beyond the realm of normal human existence that it's nearly impossible to process directly, even for those who have experienced it firsthand. Art and play are natural tools for deconstruction and a different way to challenge audiences to think about war’s aftermath.
WAR-TOYS is being completed in phases, allowing specific conflicts and geographic areas to act as milestones and opportunities to present an evolving body of work. In time, the project will include the diverse perspectives of children from areas of conflict around the world. Because there is unfortunately no shortage of war (in all its forms), Brian isn't predicting when he'll consider the project finished.
The children who participate in the WAR-TOYS project come from all walks of life. They live in refugee camps, remote villages, small towns, and thriving metropolises. They are ethnically and culturally diverse, speaking Arabic, Spanish, Hebrew, English, Swahili, Ukrainian, Russian, Pashto, and Dari. Yet, despite allegiances to different flags and beliefs, the children share similar experiences. Most have never known an existence without the near-constant threat of violence, ranging from missile strikes and machetes to shrapnel and gunfire.
Despite it all, the girls and boys who participate in WAR-TOYS are resilient, thanks in large part to the humanitarian organizations and caring individuals who provide varying levels of counseling, education, and basic needs. By sharing their experiences through WAR-TOYS, the children advocate not only for themselves and their families, but also for the boys and girls without similar access to help and support.
Brian McCarty is an accomplished photographer, art director, and producer. After graduating Parsons School of Design in 1996, Brian’s commercial sensibilities and competing interests led him to accept positions at Benetton’s creative research center Fabrica in Italy, then Mattel Toys in California. At each, he blended his own toy-based vision with world-renowned brands. Since 2003, Brian has been independently pursuing diverse projects and collaborations.
Brian's commissioned and personal work has been covered by the Guardian, Washington Post, CNN, New York Times, BBC World Service, and Wired. He’s created high profile photo series for clients including Disney, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon. Brian’s personal work has been shown internationally by the V&A Museum of Childhood in London; the Luigi Pecci Centre for Contemporary Art in Prato, Italy; and the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut. McCarty has presented work from WAR-TOYS at the The New School, American University of Beirut, St. Lawrence University, TEDx, and the Carter Presidential Library. More information on Brian can be found on his website.
Born in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War, Myra Saad is able to draw upon her own childhood memories of war and internal displacement to inform her work as an Art Therapist for the WAR-TOYS project.
Myra earned her M.A. in Art Therapy from Lesley University in Boston. She returned to Lebanon and founded Artichoke Studio – a unique art therapy center.
Through the studio, Myra provides art therapy to individuals, groups, and communities, often in partnership with local and international NGOs. She works with adults suffering from severe mental disorders, victims of domestic and sexual abuse, prison inmates, at-risk youth, refugees, social workers dealing with occupational stress and fatigue, and others.
Judith A. Rubin, Ph.D. is a pioneer in the field of art therapy. She is the author of many books, including Child Art Therapy, The Art of Art Therapy, My Mom & Dad Don't Live Together Anymore, Artful Therapy, and editor of Approaches to Art Therapy. After her experience as the "Art Lady" on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood (PBS), Judy has made numerous educational films, including Art Therapy Has Many Faces, Beyond Words, We'll Show You What We're Gonna Do! Children & the Arts, The Green Creature Within, Creative Healing in Mental Health, and Art Therapy: A Universal Language for Healing.
Past President and Honorary Life Member of the American Art Therapy Association, Judy also served on the board of the National Committee – Arts for the Handicapped and the Task Force On the Arts for The President's Commission on Mental Health. Since retiring from clinical practice, she has devoted her energies to creating and disseminating films on the arts in therapy through a nonprofit organization, Expressive Media.
Julia Byers is a full Professor of Expressive Arts Therapy and Mental Health Counseling at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In her fourteen years at Lesley, Julia has acted as Art Therapy Coordinator, Co-Coordinator of the Advanced Certificate in Play Therapy, and Senior Advisor for the PhD Interdisciplinary Studies and Expressive Therapy programs. For the sixteen years prior, Julia was the Art Therapy Coordinator and Professor at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.
Julia has provided workshops and lectures in crisis intervention and alternative therapies in fourteen different countries. She has spent twenty-three summers offering workshops and courses in Palestine and Israel. Julia has provided psychosocial and educational support for asylum seekers and refugees from numerous countries, including Uganda. In 2011, the “Somebody Project” that she facilitated was exhibited at the Victims of Torture Conference at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. The project is currently housed at the UNHCR office. Julia has also authored numerous articles, chapters, and books on the use of the arts in counseling and therapy.
An Iraqi exile of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Kasim Al-Mashat recently received his PhD in Counseling Psychology from the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver. For his 2004 Master’s thesis at UBC, Kasim studied the impact of war on Iraqi children during “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Through the course of research, Kasim returned to his hometown in Iraq to interview children and investigate the impact that the war had on them, how they coped, and the meaning that they made of their traumatic experiences.
As a supplementary part of his Master's degree, Kasim became a first time filmmaker and developed a documentary short film titled The Other Reality. The film parallels Kasim's personal journey back to his home country, explored through video journal entries, with accounts of individual Iraqi children and the conditions they face.
Kasim’s findings have been published in the International Journal for the Advancement of Counseling. His research and expertise have been applied to interactive presentations on current conditions in Iraq and the deeper psychological, historical, and cultural causes that contribute to them. Kasim and his work were first featured on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program Early Edition. Since then, he has given presentations in both academic and non-academic settings, including an event sponsored by Amnesty International.
In addition to his research experience, Kasim brings his clinical expertise and experience to the team. As a registered counsellor since 2004, he has worked with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Canadian social services.
Deepest gratitude goes to all of the amazing children that have participated as well as: Paul Vester, Judy Rubin, Julia Byers, Myra Saad, Sarah Baba, Firas Suqi, Nora Jumblatt, Dr. Jantien Dajani, War Child Lebanon, St. Lawrence University, Catherine Tedford, Potato Productions, Dr. Anne Stewart, Dr. Kasim Al-Mashat, Christopher Gunness, Matthew Reynolds, Milina Shahin, Shareef Sarhan, Mazen Naim, Ashraf Al-Masry, Dr. Ahmed Abu Tawahina, Ghassan E. Ghosn, Asieh Namdar, Larry Register, Cyndi Strand, Anne Paq, GANSO, Christina Cahill, Stacy Woods, Talia Levanon, Dr. Benjamin Epstein, Ibdaa Cultural Center, The American Colony, Robert Myers, Arne Dietrich, Barbara Griffin, Tracey Eid, Sofi Jagbrant, Samo Saleh, Farj Alakrb, Al-Fakhura Preparatory School, Asma Elementary School, Sderot Center for Young Adults, Ornit Rozenblat, Dafna Moriya, Cynthia Raskin, Iafi Shpirer, Simone Tabib, Noam Bedein, Dina Khoury, Sderot Media Center, AMIT Torani Mada'i School, Bill Colitre, Montaser Alul, Miruna Garabet, Slien Joia, Julie Land, Yousef Hammad, PhotoFlex, GoPro, SPOT, and Manfrotto/Gitzo.