Combining elements of documentary and still-life photography with an expressive therapy base, photographer Brian McCarty recreates children’s firsthand accounts of war by narratively staging and photographing locally-sourced toys on location, often inside active war zones. McCarty gathers children’s stories of survival and loss through carefully-designed, art-therapy-based interviews in sessions run by a specialized art therapist, trained in trauma-informed care. The resulting photographs capture and contextualize what the children choose to share while also documenting the playthings commonly found in areas of conflict. Each photo is tied directly to an individual child: the display of the original drawing alongside that of the photograph reinforces that connection, inviting the viewer to imaginatively experience the moment through the child’s eyes. The pantomime of toys plainly shows the universality of suffering. Seeing the same toys many know from our own childhoods, placed and posed in scenes of actual conflict, encourages audiences to connect, place themselves into the moment, and understand war from a new perspective—as a child, for whom the “bad guy” is whoever is shooting at them. This collection highlights War-Toys collaborations from 2011-2022 with children from Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip.
Since graduating Parsons School of Design in 1996, photographer Brian McCarty has built a unique career around his love of toys. Founder and Executive Director of the War Toys® nonprofit organization, McCarty has spent over 25 years splitting his time between toy-based commercial, fine art, and nonprofit projects, often blurring the lines in-between. His narrative photographs of toys have been commissioned by Mattel, Hasbro, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon and appeared everywhere from Times Square to Target. His photographic collaborations with children affected by war have been used in advocacy campaigns by UNICEF, the ICC, and other NGOs. McCarty’s work has been exhibited by museums and universities including the Musée de la Photographie Charleroi, Young V&A, and the Mucem. His work has earned coverage from The Washington Post, Guardian, The New York Times, Wired, Reuters, and countless other outlets around the world. McCarty has appeared on NPR Morning Edition, CNN, Fox News, Al-Jazeera, ABC News, PBS News Hour, and BBC World Service. McCarty has lectured at the Carter Presidential Library, New School, Sesame Workshop, American University of Beirut, and TEDx. Through all of this, McCarty has come to understand just how much toys shape and reflect our shared humanity and culture.
War Toys® is a California-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded by photographer Brian McCarty in 2019. After a nearly decade of independent fieldwork and research for the War-Toys photo series, McCarty assembled a team of directors, advisors, and officers that includes experts in expressive therapies, childhood development, human rights, and toy design & manufacturing. Together, they are working to catalyze a global cultural shift around war, holding the experiences of children impacted by armed conflict at the center of everything they do. War Toys works in the field with partnered NGOs and UN agencies to help children process trauma, grow resilience, and share their stories. Collaborating with talented artists, artisans, designers, and other toy industry veterans, War Toys is working with some of the largest toymakers and fostering impactful changes to popular, generic toy lines. They have started with the ubiquitous “army man” and are adding combat photojournalists to sets of plastic soldiers. The toy program and field work are supported with educational initiatives that facilitate nuanced conversations around war in fun, friendly, and accessible ways. Extending from the powerful work of founder Brian McCarty, War Toys is also a platform for exhibitions, artist commissions, and media production.
War Toys: Children’s Stories of Survival and Loss
Featuring: Brian McCarty
Curated by: Barbara Griffin Lauren Steel
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