In every war zone, toy soldiers are as ubiquitous as AK-47s. So are the anguished faces of the boys and girls who have survived. The children’s stories go untold; their perspectives are the least heard when adults discuss the costs of war. Pointing a camera at a child makes a powerful, emotional connection, but it’s not the same as seeing through their eyes, listening, or engaging with the stories they struggle to tell. To do that requires the safety of therapeutic spaces; active attention to what they say—and don’t say—and a willingness to respond, interpret, engage, and speak their language—to play.
Since 2011, toy photographer Brian McCarty has worked with children from Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip on a photo series titled WAR-TOYS. Boys and girls are invited to become art directors for Brian's photographs of locally found toys, recreating their experiences through a deconstructive and disarming filter of play. The project invokes principles and practices of expressive art therapy to safely gather and articulate children's unseen accounts of war.
The goal, above all else, is to responsibly engage potentially traumatized children in the storytelling process. This begins through carefully designed art-based interviews, conducted in group settings and organized in partnership with NGOs and UN agencies. Sessions are run by a specialized art therapist who travels with Brian. WAR-TOYS has provided many children their first opportunity to begin processing their experiences in a controlled setting.
In the sessions, boys and girls ages 8-12 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 the beginnings of longer conversations with the onsite therapist. Her interaction with the children is key to understanding the true meaning behind their artwork. Some important elements are buried – as if to protect them – in seemingly chaotic or even innocuous scenes. Others are shown directly in stark images of daily life in a warzone.
Toy soldiers are as ubiquitous as AK-47s
All of the toys used in the project 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 and the parallel distribution of arms and consumer goods around the world.
The playthings Brian finds are photographed on location, typically within the current living conditions of the child and often at the exact spot where described events occurred. His intention is to contextualize the children’s accounts and integrate the toys into the surrounding landscape. To do this, Brian works almost entirely in-camera, using forced perspective and simple methods to place flying elements such as bombs and aircraft into compositions. String or support tools are removed in postproduction, refining what is an actual moment documented through the lens.
The fears and traumas affecting children who have survived war are reflected through the life given to their toys.
Because of the potential for re-traumatizing or otherwise endangering the children, they rarely accompany Brian on the photo shoots. The recreated accounts are very often violent and bloody, and it would be irresponsible and unethical to immerse a child into these scenes outside of a controlled, therapeutic setting. When looking through the viewfinder, these imagined worlds can be all-too-real for young eyes. The fears and traumas affecting children who have survived war are reflected through the life given to their toys.
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.
NGO / UN Support
The following organizations have graciously provided access and support for the WAR-TOYS project:
IOM / The UN Migration Agency • Terre des Hommes Italia • Kayany Foundation • Spafford Children's Center • United Nations Relief and Works Agency • Israel Trauma Coalition • Nader Association • Amel Community Center for Refugees
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, Kurdish, 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 - Toy Photographer
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.
Myra Saad - Art Therapist
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, PhD – Consultant
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, EhD – Consultant
Julia Byers is Professor Emeritus of Expressive Arts Therapy and Mental Health Counseling at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In her long career at Lesley, Julia 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.
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, Terre des Hommes Italia, Miriam Ambrosini, Gharib Rauf, Mika Fowler, IOM / UN Migration Agency, Ashley Carl, UNICEF France, Maud Saheb, War Child Lebanon, Andres Gonzalez, 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, Elise Mad, 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.