War Toys

War Toys

Brian McCarty, 2016 Finalist

A conceptual art/photography project that involves McCarty collaborating with children in refugee camps in post-conflict zones. With the help of expressive therapists, McCarty works with the children to make narrative photographs that recreate their experiences – shot on location, using locally found toys.

Gaza Cinderella, 2012 Location: Northern Gaza Strip


Although the drawing is filled with soldiers, helicopters, and tanks, the girl who drew the picture only spoke   about her intense fear of missile strikes. When a building or other structure is targeted in Gaza, it is often hit with a barrage of several missiles to ensure its complete destruction. The sound of successive hits is well known  to children living in the territory.


Youth Resistance, 2011

Location: Dheisheh Refugee Camp, West Bank

This drawing was made by a boy at the Ibdaa Cultural Center inside the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, located just south of Bethlehem. The boy dreamed of a youth resistance lead by older peers against Israeli incursions into the camp. The mural in the background of the resulting photo shows 17-year-old camp martyr Qusai Alafandi. He was killed on 28 January 2008 after throwing a Molotov cocktail at IDF  forces.

Checkpoint, 2011

Location: Kalandia Checkpoint, West  Bank


Based upon an interview conducted February 2011 with a boy undergoing psychosocial treatment at   the Spafford Children’s Center, East Jerusalem. The drawing shows his daily experiences.

Palestinian Pride, 2011

Location: Kalandia Checkpoint, West  Bank


The girl who made this drawing spoke about her dreams of a Palestinian state without Israeli interference. The  resulting photograph shows her current reality and an  iconic mural of Yasser Arafat – a lasting symbol of pride among many Palestinians.

Uprising, 2011

Location: West Bank Separation Barrier


Based upon an interview conducted February 2011 with a boy undergoing psychosocial treatment at the  Spafford Children’s Center, East Jerusalem. The boy dreamed of another Intifada and the destruction of the separation barrier.

Three Nautical Miles, 2012 Location: Gaza Strip


Several boys at the Al-Fakhura Preparatory School inside the Jabiliya Refugee Camp drew about the hazards facing their family members and neighbors fishing off the coast of Gaza. Some risk confrontation by crossing the often disputed line of embargo to reach prime fishing locations. These toys were purchased in the open-air markets of Gaza’s Old City in November of 2012. The sailboat is leftover stock from London’s Summer Olympics.

Mortar Fire, 2012

Location: Northern Gaza Strip


A boy from the Jabiliya Refugee Camp created this drawing, depicting militants as heroic defenders of Gaza and keeping Israel forces at bay. Bombed out buildings such as the one seen in the photo often serve as launch sites for attacks on Israel. The toy was found in the open air market of Gaza’s Old City.

Sderot Home, 2012 Location: Sderot, Israel


These drawings were created the morning of 22 November, 2012 in the first few hours of a ceasefire that ended “Operation Pillar of Defense.” During the conflict, 1456 rockets and mortars were fired from Gaza towards Israel, many landing in or nearby the town of Sderot. The children that were interviewed with the support of the Israel Trauma Coalition had been living in underground community bunkers for several days.

Arms Long Enough, 2012 Location: Sderot, Israel


Based upon an interview conducted November 2012 with a boy taking shelter in Sderot Community  Bunker

#28. He wished he had arms long enough to catch the rockets falling on the town and his  home.

Bus Bombing, 2012 Location: Tel Aviv


Based upon an interview conducted in November 2012 with a boy attending the AMIT Torani Mada’i School in Sderot, Israel. His drawing shows rockets from Gaza intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system, yet a bus exploding. A few days before, a bus had exploded in Tel Aviv. The actual location was used in the subsequent toy photo.

House Bombing, 2012 Location: Gaza Strip


The drawing shows the before and after of a missile strike on a home outside Gaza City. The boy who created the drawing lived in the house next door and witnessed the death of his  neighbors.

Unseen Al-Aqsa, 2012

Location: Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem


When asked what they hoped for in the future, both girls and boys in the Gaza Strip often drew themselves  leaving the blockaded territory to visit the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. A vinyl figure was brought back from Gaza and photographed at the iconic dome in Jerusalem's Old City. Typical of many toys found within Gaza, the vinyl figure was being sold alongside other random remnants from Chinese factories, sold cheaply  to local retailers. Its lack of painted-on eyes appears  to be from a mistake in a larger production  run.

Incursion, 2012 Location: Gaza Strip


Many children in Gaza drew about their fears of IDF soldiers coming across the border and attacking them. Israeli children living just outside of Gaza created nearly identical drawings that showed their fears of Palestinian militants doing the same.

Mother of Violence, 2012 Location: Gaza Strip


A large number of children created drawings that were similar in nature to the one seen here. There is recurring iconography – olive trees, keys, flags, walls – that symbolize deeply held beliefs and issues at the heart of the conflict. However, the truly common thread seen from children on both sides of the border is the de- emphasis of important, personal elements inside of drawings. Hiding within this chaotic scene is a mother holding a little girl, afraid of the  fighting.


Football Game, 2012

Location: Beach Refugee Camp, Gaza Strip


Based upon an art-based interview with a boy attending the Al-Fakhura Preparatory School, Jabalya Refugee Camp, Gaza Strip. Although his drawing touched upon many topics, he talked exclusively about his fear of being targeted while playing football with his friends.

Wall Shooting, 2012

Location: West Bank Separation Barrier


Based upon an interview conducted February 2011 with a boy undergoing psychosocial treatment at the  Spafford Children’s Center, East Jerusalem. The boy talked about his friend who had been killed by a solider while playing near the wall. Also known to other children undergoing treatment, they created similar drawings showing the dead boy.

Resilience, 2012 Location: Gaza City


The resilience of girls and boys in Gaza was nothing short of amazing to witness. Although most exhibit varying levels of psychological trauma, when there is no fighting, they go on just being kids – laughing and playing in the only world they’ve ever known. Hope for their future comes from the dedicated caregivers and organizations who rise above the conflict and provide support to children on both sides of the   border.


Refugee Camp Life, 2014 Location: Bekaa Valley, Lebanon


Syrian refugees who had recently arrived in Lebanon drew pictures about their life in camp. In this one, a girl showed her life before the war and her hatred for the cold rains that come in the  winter.

Girls Tortured, One Killed, 2014 Location: Bekaa Valley, Lebanon


In an art-based interview, a shy 9-year-old girl shared some of the horrors she witnessed before her family fled Aleppo. In her drawing she showed a young girl beaten to death by a solider while her sister watched and  cried.

Although she never said that the sister – likely her – had been raped, the phallic-nature of the soldier’s baton raised serious concerns. The girl was referred to the UNHCR for additional counseling. Unfortunately, resources are so scarce that  only extreme cases typically receive appropriate attention.

Last Dinner With My Father, 2014 Location: Bekaa Valley, Lebanon


A girl at school run by the Kayany Foundation drew a seemingly innocuous scene of her family at dinner. Talking about the drawing with the art therapist, the  girl revealed it was the last time she saw her father alive. He got up from the table to investigate sounds  of gunfire outside and was killed. Her family fled Syria immediately after laying her father to rest.

Home Destroyed by a Tank, 2014 Location: Bekaa Valley, Lebanon


A tank destroyed the home of a young Syrian refugee before he and his family fled for Lebanon. The photo was shot just outside of their tent encampment situated in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, within sight of the Syrian border.

Hope to Leave a World of War, 2014 Location: Bekaa Valley, Lebanon


In his drawing, a Syrian refugee showed his dream to fly away from a world of war (bottom right). The resulting photo was taken just outside of his camp using toys and other object found less than 1 km  down the road.

Photographer's Statement: 

For the past several years, I’ve been traveling to war zones and refugee camps to work with children surviving in the aftermath of war. Together, we collaborate on photographs that narratively recreate with locally found toys what the boys and girls have experienced. The resulting images – photographed on location – provide an interpretive document of witnessed events and context for the children’s accounts. The inherent playfulness helps to deconstruct individual experiences of war into a format more easily understood by those who have survived as well as audiences typically numb to graphic accounts.

The success of the “WAR-TOYS” project thus far can be measured by its spread through international media -- and perhaps even by ISIS stealing and changing one of the photos into a propaganda piece. As upsetting as it was to discover, it shows that the work is having an impact. Unaltered photographs art directed by children from Syria, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Lebanon have appeared in media outlets in over twenty countries.

WAR-TOYS is intended to be apolitical and neutral, showing war from the perspective of innocents. To a child, whomever is shooting at them is the “bad guy,” plain and simple. Trying to make sense of it while struggling with the resulting trauma is how cycles of violence perpetuate and grow. By looking at these children’s accounts through a consistent approach, vast differences in culture and beliefs disappear, leaving a shared human condition and basis for understanding.

I’ve enlisted experts in expressive therapy to develop the methodology behind the project. The goal above all else is to safely engage potentially traumatized children in the creative process. This begins through carefully designed art-based interviews, conducted in group settings organized by local and international NGOs. Boys and girls 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 often the beginning of longer conversations with an onsite therapist. In the process of sharing their artwork, children reveal the details that are most important or impactful to them. Some elements are buried – as if to protect them – in seemingly chaotic scenes. Others are shown directly in stark images of daily life in a war zone.

The resulting photographs are based upon these documented interviews and the drawings that the children leave behind. Toys are sourced from nearby shops, 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. However, so far, I’ve found the same plastic, Chinese-made arsenals in every war zone and refugee camp in which I’ve worked. Toy soldiers are as ubiquitous as the AK-47.

These playthings are photographed on location, always within the current living conditions of the child and often at the exact spot where described events occurred. Because of the potential for re-traumatizing or otherwise endangering the children, they typically do not accompany me on the shoots.

The fears and traumas affecting children who have survived war are expressed through the life given to their toys. These surrogates take on emotions too difficult to process directly, both for the children as well as most of the public at large. When confronted with graphic images showing the true costs of war, most people turn away - literally and metaphorically. Their repulsion or numbness protects their psyche from being damaged. War is so beyond the realm of normal human existence that it's nearly impossible to process directly, even for those who have experienced it firsthand. Art and play are natural tools for deconstruction and a different way to challenge audiences to think about war’s aftermath.

Brian McCarty
brian.mccarty's picture

Brian McCarty is a contemporary artist and photographer known for his work with toys. McCarty's approach is based upon integrating toy characters into real-life situations through the use of forced perspective in carefully crafted scenes. Preferring to work in-camera and without compositing, McCarty creates his photographs by sometimes traveling to exotic locations, including active war zones. Although grounded in reality, because of his use of implied narratives mixed with ironic juxtapositions, McCarty's work is often associated with the Art-Toy, Lowbrow, and Pop Surrealist movements.