A few months ago, I was surprised to learn that the Islamic State had appropriated and altered one of my photos from Gaza (left), turning it into propaganda (right).
From the beginning, I’ve been wary of War-Toys being used to further the political goals of others. When first working with both Israeli and Palestinian children, it wasn’t hard to imagine zealots seeing what they wanted to see and attempting to use the work to promote their beliefs. Yet I never anticipated something like this. I couldn't have imagined that the intention of the work would be altered so heavily and used by a group like ISIS. They took a little girl’s very real fear of war and turned it into something promoting extremist beliefs – ones at the core of unspeakable amounts of death and suffering.
The original photo was art directed by a girl at a UNRWA-run school in Gaza. She made a drawing that was filled with tanks, soldiers, and helicopters along with a sky-full of missiles targeting a crying girl. When asked about the drawing, she focused on those two elements – the girl and the missiles.
I searched around Gaza and found a Cinderella keychain to represent the girl and a bag of army men that also had plastic missiles in it. They were photographed in the northern Gaza Strip as concussion waves could be felt from actual missile strikes on the horizon. The resulting photo showed a barrage raining down on Cinderella, her back towards camera.
Someone with ISIS decided that it would be neat to replace the doll with their iconic black flag and copies of the Koran, surrounded by a magical bubble of protection. Copy was added, “Under the Crusader bombing…the Islamic-Caliphate State.”
There’s no way to compare the intention and meaning of the two images.
I’ve had some time to reflect on the theft, and while it doesn’t make it feel any better, I’m happy that it’s backfired and brought more attention to these children and their perspectives. That is the point of the project – getting their accounts seen.
Conflicting as this may be, I still wouldn’t hesitate to collaborate again with children who associate with ISIS. I met a few in northern Lebanon who very proudly supported the group. One went so far as to draw a version of the ISIS flag with his name on it along with a wishful account of their cannons destroying the Lebanese army.
The project will remain neutral, and despite my personal beliefs, I’ll continue to relay what the children choose to share.