What do you think of when you hear the word 'war'? Bullets? Soldiers? Bloodshed? What about 'toys'? Brian McCarty does. So he photographs them in major conflict zones. Which seems fairly ballsy. Having gained considerable commercial success with his unique still life photography using toys as subject matter, McCarty’s newest work is something a little different. With WAR-TOYS, McCarty documents children’s experience of war, working directly with the kids using art therapy and photography. Just back from East Jerusalem, we spoke to him about his powerful and touching new project.
Why do you choose to use toys as the subjects of your photographs?
I’ve always had a passion for toys. About the time I was supposed to grow up and stop playing with them, toys became subjects of my early, fumbling experiments with photography. They’ve always held magic for me. They are organic icons, totems of who we are as a culture. Toys help children learn to be adults and remind adults of how to think like a child.
What made you decide to begin the WAR-TOYS project?
The roots of the WAR-TOYS project go back to a study I photographed in 1996 for an exhibition in Zagreb in the immediate aftermath of the Croatian War of Independence. Working under a grant from the Italian creative research center Fabrica, I shot a small series of photographs that focused on an off-the-shelf “war-toy” posed in mock combat. My intention was to explore the toy as a cultural artefact and tool for gaining perspective on war. However, it remained in the abstract and not tied to anyone’s personal experiences.
Over the next fourteen years, the conceptual seeds of the project stayed with me and grew as I grew, both artistically and personally. As I learned more about art therapy and play therapy, I began to see the real potential toys have to be mechanisms for healing and communication.
Children who are most affected by war are the least able to express their personal experiences. Because cognitive ability is often ahead of language development, art and play become the only way for children to articulate their perspective. Through the eyes of these children, it is possible to simultaneously see both the root causes and costs of war. If there is ever to be any hope of lasting peace, it is imperative to understand how war affects its most innocent victims.
With this in mind, the conceptual basis for WAR-TOYS came into focus, but it took a push from a few friends to get me moving. I’m thankful that when I was finally ready to begin again, there were people around to encourage me.
I understand that you’re interested in children's experiences of war, but what made you choose the Israel - Palestine conflict?
Israel and Palestine are important to focus on not only for their current state of affairs, but also because of the long legacy of conflict that led to their existence. The land has been fought over since the dawn of civilization. It’s been ruled at times by Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Khwarezmian Tartars, Fatimites, Ayyubids, Ottoman Turks, Mamluks, Mongols, Egyptians, British, Christians, Arabs, and Jews. The land is considered holy by three of the world’s major religions. No one is willing to give up control and claim, including western powers and neighbouring countries. The people are stuck, fighting their own ideology and passion. It seems unwinnable and inexorably tied to fundamental flaws of human nature.
Yet there is so much beauty and resilience in both the Israelis and Palestinians. Despite prolonged adversity, the human spirit endures. If we can battle our inherent shortcomings and find common ground, perhaps there is hope for peace.
You spent a month in East Jerusalem working on the project, which can't have been easy - any stand out moments for you?
The month in East Jerusalem and the surrounding region was indeed challenging, but mostly from a leap-of-faith standpoint. For as much as I believed in the concept, there was no way to know if I’d actually be able to pull it off. I was far less afraid of getting caught in the middle of conflict than I was of failing to accurately and respectfully capture the children’s perspective. This mentality led to one of the more memorable moments.
One of the children had drawn an extremely graphic account of an incident near the barrier wall. It showed a solider shooting a little boy in the head. Part of the WAR-TOYS project involves recreating these drawn accounts in a photograph, using locally bought toys as surrogates for people. My 'cast' was a bag of cheap, plastic army men from an Arab-owned toyshop in East Jerusalem and a plastic boy from a Jewish-owned toy store in West Jerusalem. Once outfitted, I traveled past the Qalandia checkpoint inside the West Bank and set up along the barrier wall, not far from where Banksy created one of his original pieces years ago. While struggling with the composition and placement of the toys, sounds of approaching protestors grew louder and louder. I peeked up from the camera from time to time to see what was happening at the checkpoint, but it seemed less real than what I saw through the viewfinder.
It’s really interesting for me to watch video of the event, shot by my local assistant Montaser Alul. When the tear gas and stun grenades started to go off, I asked Montaser -- without looking up -- what we were hearing. He answered, “Normal things.” As if agreeing, I picked up a toy solider that had been blown down by the wind and kept shooting. It seems mad now that I largely ignored the chaotic protest happening so close behind me, but all of my attention was focused on bringing the child’s drawing to life. What I was seeing then was less important to me than capturing what the boy envisioned.
One of the things that is so interesting about WAR-TOYS is the involvement of the people that live the conflict every day, as opposed to documenting it from an outsider's perspective. What was it like working with the children?
The children were simply amazing. I was constantly in awe of their resilience and willingness to articulate their experiences. I relied on local therapists and organization staff members to essentially conduct “art interviews” on my behalf while I observed. I was worried about triggering traumatic memories in an uncontrolled and unsafe way. These professionals are known to the children and know how to recognize early signs of emotional distress. Children are often so eager to please that they’ll keep expressing horribly painful experiences to the point where they re-live the trauma. The last thing I wanted to do was cause any more harm.
Most of my direct contact with the children was outside of an art therapy or interview setting. Fridays were a big deal for local children at the Spafford Center. There was dancing, arts and crafts, language lessons, and puppet theater. It was a lot of fun. I also got to know the neighborhood kids around the Damascus Gate area of the Old City. In four weeks I graduated from having small pebbles thrown at me to having the kids actively participating in the photos. There’s a great outtake of a local boy surrendering to a plastic soldier on the streets. They immediately got what I was trying to do.
Going forward I want to involve the children more and more in the photo making process. It’s one thing for me to interpret their drawings, and quite another to have them actively directing the scene. Given the short time and very limited resources, it wasn’t something I could accomplish large scale for my initial proof of concept trip.
Any of the children's experiences that particularly stuck with you?
They all do, but there is one little girl in particular that stays in my mind. She was very sweet and terribly shy. I felt like I scored a major victory by getting her to smile once by sticking out my tongue. Watching her quietly, intensely coloring in pools of blood was like a punch in the stomach.
An example of the children's art therapy work
You say that the end result of WAR-TOYS will be a photo essay and documentary - where do you see the project going from there?
I hope that Israel and Palestine will just be the first chapter of the WAR-TOYS project, but until it’s complete, I’m not looking too far ahead. The coming months of work in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza will be an extraordinary challenge.
As for the documentary part of the project, I’m collaborating with some very exciting and talented people right now. It’s a long process, and one that’s only beginning. No matter how it happens, in the end I’ll measure the success of WAR-TOYS by how much it fosters communication and challenges perceptions.
If you want to see more of McCarty’s work, you can visit his website here, or to find out more about the WAR-TOYS project, check it out here.
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