Photographic project War-Toys has developed over many years, and with its central artist working on one war zone at a time, there’s no completion date in sight. Amal Awad speaks with photographer Brian McCarty about his work with children and toys in areas of combat around the world.
For most of us, our day job involves a routine commute to the same place every weekday. We may take occasional or frequent business trips, but rarely do our itineraries include war zones. Yet for toy photographer Brian McCarty, a normal month can involve waiting on permission from NGOs to travel into devastated areas of the world. At the time of our interview in March, Brian is hoping to firm up some travel dates to enter Afghanistan, Pakistan and, to work with Syrian refugees, Lebanon.
In the meantime, Brian stays busy with commissioned projects to help fund his reason for travelling: War-Toys, a photo essay that uses principles of play and art therapy to articulate children’s firsthand accounts of war.
“In practice, boys and girls who have been affected by conflict act as art directors for narrative photographs of locally found toys, placed and posed at actual locations to recreate shared fears and witnessed events,” explains Brian.
Though a normal month may involve organising travel, once on the job a normal day is anything but an average one at the office.
Brian remembers his first experience shooting for War-Toys, in the occupied West Bank. It was a shoot, he says, that forced him to question what he was truly trying to achieve. Several children had documented a little boy being shot by an Israeli Defense Forces soldier near the separation barrier, recalls Brian. To recreate the moment, he purchased toys from local shops in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, before travelling just past the Qalandia Checkpoint on the road to Ramallah.
“By the time I had the toys composed in front of the camera, a massive group of protestors had descended on the checkpoint. They were chanting and advancing on Israeli soldiers manning the post, now in full riot gear. When the stun grenades and tear gas started going off, I had to choose why I was there.
“Would I stop and actually experience the events happening just behind me, or continue ‘playing with toys’ in front of the camera?”
It was a profound moment of realisation for Brian, who concluded that he wasn’t there simply to be a witness to violence and protest.
“There were photojournalists on both sides capturing the chaotic scene at the checkpoint, but no one else there to articulate what these children had seen. I did my job and pushed the shutter button.”
He says that during his time in the Middle East there were many more moments like this – having to detach from a personal experience in favour of staying focused on that of the children’s.
“It was extremely difficult at times, but it felt right.”
The power of connection
Brian perhaps didn’t anticipate such a whirlwind of a career when he first began working with toys. He didn’t throw away his “tools of childhood”, he says, and by the age of 12 the toys most other kids rejected had transitioned into subjects for his “early, fumbling experiments with photography”.
“It was a way to keep playing and exploring the world through plastic projections of myself. In the nearly 28 years since, I’ve been fortunate enough to build a career around this way of seeing and interacting with the world around me.”
Later, what started as a small study in 1996, which Brian conducted while undertaking grant-funded work at Fabrica, a communications research centre in Italy, has since mushroomed into a wider exploration of war narratives.
“I was invited to participate in a Zagreb photo exhibition in the immediate aftermath of the Croatian War of Independence. For the show, I chose to look at off-the-shelf war toys like GI Joe as cultural artefacts,” recounts Brian.
Following that experience, he began to connect artefacts to actual experiences of war.
“I became aware of the use of art and play therapy to treat traumatised children in areas of conflict. In severe cases, these boys and girls lose the ability to speak altogether. A trained therapist armed with little more than crayons and paper can open up pathways for communication and healing,” he says.
“Having seen examples of these drawings as well as the wide variety of playthings available in each area, a connection was made. I decided to purposefully collaborate with these children and invite them to become my art directors.”
Brian has an exhibition slated to begin in 2015 in the US, presented by the Mid-America Arts Alliance. There is also a website and book – a War-Toys monograph, available through booksellers and online, which chronicles the first volume of Brian’s work in Israel, the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Proceeds from the book go towards future funding of War-Toys. A preview of the collection, curated by Catinca Tabacaru, was first shown in New York City at Peanut Underground Art Projects in collaboration with Catinca Tabacaru Gallery.
It’s all therapeutic
While there’s no mistaking the passion behind the project, War-Toys is not a vanity project that seeks simply to demystify war narratives. It directly impacts the subjects themselves – the children living in combat conditions – and aims to offer their perspectives.
A form of art therapy, Brian’s work documents the children’s experiences of trauma by recreating pivotal moments with toys, then photographing them in the field. The images are striking, dissonant and very real. Brian believes that using the principles of play and art therapies to photograph toys offers a glimpse into the world these children inhabit.
“A journalist can enter a warzone and document every moment that he or she witnesses – the reality seen through the lens. Even when looking at the faces of the children and stark images of the world in which they live, it’s impossible to know what they think and feel,” says Brian.
The toy objects become surrogates for the children, he adds.
“They project themselves into the scene, and it becomes a reality for them. My role is to facilitate and recreate their accounts of war as best I can. Through our collaborations, the children are given a voice and become advocates for themselves.”
While this sort of work isn’t for the faint of heart, Brian says he tries not to let his personal opinions and experience conflict with the children’s points of view, regardless of where he is doing his work.
“This means that whoever is shooting at the children (and me) is the ‘bad guy’, plain and simple. When airstrikes were hitting Gaza, Israel was the enemy. When rockets fell on the Israeli town of Sderot, Palestine was the enemy. In the moment when trauma occurs, ideology or flag matters little.”
Because Brian isn’t a trained therapist, he says he needs the assistance of humanitarian organisations to do his ongoing work. More specifically, he needs NGOs to conduct art-based interviews on his behalf.
“By design, my direct interaction with the children is often limited. It took years of research and consultations with expressive therapy experts to develop the methodology behind War-Toys. My greatest concern is for the safety of the children that participate in the project. A child can be so eager to please that he or she will continue sharing a story to the point where they re-experience associated trauma. It’s why I’ve relied on local caregivers,” he explains.
Brian says the experts are equipped to identify warning signs that can easily be missed, and are better able to “keep the experience positive for the girls and boys who participate”.
“The overall goal is to contribute to the children’s recovery while validating and sharing their perspectives.”
Setting up the shot – in Brian’s words
The complexity of the shot determines how long I spend at each location… that, and the security situation. I’ve been amazed how quickly a few photos came together once bombs started dropping on the horizon. Adrenaline and fear are powerful motivators.
The process generally works like this: once I have the children’s drawings, a toy “wish list” is compiled. It focuses on major elements and “characters” from the children’s accounts. In a process that can take days depending on the region, local shops, stores, markets and vendors are visited, and available toys are essentially auditioned in my mind. Those that seem potentially useful to reconstruct events are purchased.
The use of locally found and acquired toys is an important aspect of the project. The objects provide socioeconomic commentary and act as cultural artefacts. Thus far, even in refugee camps, I’ve found the needed toys to recreate the children’s accounts. However, going forward, I don’t always anticipate this being the case. In areas where mass-produced toys are unavailable, I intend to ask the children to create these essential elements and characters as part of the interview or in a separate post-interview process.
Armed with the children’s drawings, other interview materials and available toys, an initial shot list is created over the course of a day. It generally includes thumbnail sketches to ease communication with local crew (fixer, driver, assistant – often one person). This person’s knowledge of local areas is key to the production of the photos.
Depending on the complexity and security situation, I can produce as few as two and as many as seven photos in a day. The same can be said for the amount of time at any given location. On average, an hour per location is a fair estimate, but I’ve often spent much longer when opportunities have presented themselves.
How therapy sessions work
Brian says each session – from classroom to bomb shelter – begins in the same way: a local caregiver (also acting as interpreter) introduces Brian and explains the project to the children, who are then invited to draw a story that they would like to share about their lives.
“The actual invitation is designed to be as open to interpretation as possible. I’ll occasionally get a story about a cat that comes to a child’s windowsill, but in the vast majority of cases, the boys and girls are eager to share their experiences of war and associated fears.”
Brian says the responses to the photographs from the children “have been nothing short of amazing”, and he has succeeded in integrating the project into ongoing psychosocial programmes.
“The art interview process and the resulting images become another way for caregivers to safely explore the children’s experiences. Most of my direct interaction with the children often comes from the critiques they give of my work.”
One such session, recounts Brian, was not the happiest, but was very educational. He had created a photograph for a little girl, but she was, he says, “mortified”.
“It showed a small Playmobil figure holding a Palestinian flag by an iconic mural of Yasser Arafat. Through the caregiver who was acting as interpreter, I tried to defend the photograph and its content, thinking that I had done a fairly literal recreation her drawing. She agreed but was upset that the toy wasn’t wearing a hijab. The girl associated herself so strongly with the toy character that she was embarrassed for the immodesty. From then on, I was careful to be more sensitive.”
As a result, a few of Brian’s photographs now feature Fulla, the so-called Muslim Barbie.
Despite the devastation of knowing that these drawings are depictions of the children’s sad reality, Brian describes his work with them as remarkable.
“It would be easy to lose faith in humanity were it not for the resilience of the girls and boys. Despite everything they have been through, with proper treatment and support, they find amazing strength and simply remain kids. It gives me hope.”
Beyond the children involved, Brian says the response to his work has been “overwhelming”. War-Toys has received media coverage in more than 20 countries, and he has also participated in exhibitions in New York, London and Cape Town.
“It’s been validating for the work thus far, but again, I feel as though I’m just scratching the surface. I’m eager to expand the scope and scale of the project and include children’s perspectives from around the world.”
For more about War-Toys, or to donate to the project, visit wartoysproject.com
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 Arts issue of Aquila Style magazine. For a superior and interactive reading experience, you can get the entire issue, free of charge, on your iPad or iPhone at the Apple Newsstand, or on your Android tablet or smartphone at Google Play