It’s a war zone, and Brian McCarty is out with his toys in the middle of ear-deafening firing. From baby elephants, Cinderella dolls, toy tanks to tin soldiers, the battlefield is set and the American photographer is focused on getting the perfect shot.
This is how a typical day in the life of Brian McCarty looks like, who tells war stories through children’s eyes. His photographs are artistic but still hard-hitting. Titled the ‘War Toys’, his project, in collaboration with art therapist Myra Saad, focuses on helping ‘war victimised kids’ and helping them articulate their memories and thoughts through drawings. “This gives them a sense of empowerment”, he says.
To make the drawings more impactful and legible, McCarty recreates them with toys. This stolen scene from a traumatic memory is his way of giving war a more personal face.
Here is the drawing the scene is adapted from. Made by an Iraqi girl, the picture shows a wounded man crying for help, while ISIS soldiers exchange relentless fire with an aircraft.
Speaking to indianexpress.com, McCarty shares what it is like to hear children’s heartfelt experiences, how effective art therapy has been for them, and more.
Your way of depicting war through toys is quite innovative and personalises the message for a reader who is sitting miles away from the zone. What brought these War-Toys to your notice?
The roots of War-Toys trace back to 1996 when I shot for an exhibition in Zagreb immediately following the Croatian War of Independence. The setting reminded me of conversations with my father about his experiences in the Vietnam war. He never felt comfortable sharing any war stories with me but I was left with a longing to know.
I found some old letters he had written to my mother while serving, and I used a 1960s-era action figure to reenact moments from his life – including the first time he was shot at.
Over the next fifteen years, as my career as a “toy photographer” continued to build, I kept thinking about the project and slowly developing it in my mind. I learned about expressive therapies and their use in treating war-traumatized children. The idea of collaborating with these children, inviting them to essentially art direct my photos was born.
What was the first picture that you decided to recreate with toys?
The first was based on an art-based interview with children in East Jerusalem. Several made drawings of a little boy being shot by an Isreali Defence Forces (IDF) soldier. To recreate the moment, I bought toys from shops in the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.
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, 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?
How do you identify the children whose toys you focus on in your pictures?
I meet the children with art therapist Myra Saad in group sessions organised by NGOs and UN agencies. Over the course of a few hours, Myra works with the children to help them relax and safely share some of their experiences through drawings. She speaks with each child individually and listens to whatever they want to reveal. Often, it’s about their wartime experiences. Other times, it’s something completely random that they want to talk about.
At the end of the sessions, I’ll gather the drawings, notes, and observations to decide which accounts to focus on. What I ultimately photograph is determined by many factors including what toys I’m able to find.
What kind of work goes into setting up toys for a picture?
Each photo can take days of work. After the interviews, I sort through and identify which accounts I feel I can illustrate best. I then make a list of all the toys I’ll need to create the photos and scour every bazaar, street vendor, and shop for the items. Once I’ve found everything, I spend more days organising the toys, matching them to the children’s accounts, making modifications, and planning a shoot list. I then travel into the field and match the locations to the accounts, working as best I can in some very challenging areas.
Your pictures mostly come across as an expression of raw emotion felt by the kids. Is there also a personal message that you are trying to convey?
By using toys, I hope viewers can connect to children’s actual experiences of war without being overwhelmed. I want to invite as much empathy and understanding as possible for these boys and girls.
For the kids, the answer is much simpler: my goals are to give them a voice, validate their perspectives, and present their experiences in a way that gets understood by a wider audience.
Is it difficult to get children to open up about their experiences and life? How helpful do you feel art therapy is for them?
In the art-based interviews, children are introduced to the project and asked to draw a story from their lives that they want to share with the rest of the world. It’s structured so that if a child that doesn’t feel comfortable sharing experiences of war, is free to draw anything he/she wants. The goal is to empower not coerce.
There have been idyllic scenes like kids just playing in a park or a cat coming to a child’s window at night. Some are especially bittersweet knowing what the children have been through. One example is of a boy from my last trip to Iraq that chose to draw an elephant with its two calves, but he chose not to colour one in. On being asked, Saad revealed that it represented the ghost of his dead sibling. To me, that is the true power of the approach, letting children express themselves in a way that is organic and safe for them.
Are you selling any of these photographs? And if you are, do any of the proceeds go to the welfare of these children?
I’m proud that an auction of donated prints funded an art therapy program in Kayany Foundation schools for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. UNICEF has used the work in their advocacy efforts, including the #ChildrenInWar campaign. Proceeds from those sales help fund the continued production of the series.
Have any of the children shown a curiosity about learning photography?
Children are magnetically drawn to cameras. Anytime I pull one out in refugee camps, I’m swarmed. Given the opportunity, I’m sure all of the children would love to learn.
Take a look at his other works:
Heart-wrenching, isn’t it?