They're not images of war you're accustomed to seeing. In place of dark grey skies, flattened neighbourhoods and faces etched in agony are the bright neon colours of childhood innocence, Barbie's beatific smile beaming through a barbed wire fence, plastic monster trucks on desert sands.
But it is exactly this dissonance that makes Brian McCarty's photography striking and memorable.
“I think a success of the project is that folks who would never look at the serious photos of war, who would never look at the bloody child, or the reality in all its harshness, will look at this, internalise it and actually think about the children's perspectives,” McCarty says.
“To see a toy in that context, you can see the truth of a situation without getting bogged down in the uncertainty of it.”
McCarty is no stranger to translating children’s experiences of war into compelling images. His previous visits to conflict zones in the Arab world have been documented through his War-Toys Project, including Gaza and West Bank. War-Toys is an ongoing, not-for-profit photo essay McCarty started in 2011, in which he recreated children’s drawings about war using toys, culminating in a book that sold out of its print run. The website, where McCarty continues to blog about his travels, features the output of previous trips.
In February this year, he travelled to Lebanon for the second time, to work with NGO Kayany Foundation and, specifically, art therapist Myra Saad of Artichoke Studio. McCarty travelled between Beirut and refugee camps located on Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria; his focus was the Syrian crisis and its impact on children. This involved three very intense weeks working with Kayany at their schools for refugees in the Beqaa Valley, where the children (aged eight to 16) drew their memories of war then, later, created collaborative dioramas in multi-day workshops.
To see a toy in that context, you can see the truth of a situation without getting bogged down in the uncertainty of it.
“They gave Myra and I use of a classroom at the Malala Yousafzai school, and we started by doing the normal art-based interviews that have been the core of War-Toys since the beginning,” recounts McCarty, who describes the workshop as “an experiment and deviation” from the established process, which would never see children accompany McCarty to photo shoots due to the risks, both psychologically and safety-wise.
McCarty stresses that he’s not an art therapist, but working with qualified people, his work utilises the principles and practices of art therapy, and he believes it can be therapeutic for the children involved. These children draw their memories of war, and McCarty recreates them using the real world as a base setting – for example, the desert – and toys as characters and props. For example, children are always asked what their hopes for the future are, the responses for which led to the images ‘Refugee Astronaut’.
Speaking to McCarty, it’s evident that the wellbeing of the children is at the heart of his work, though he underplays the potential benefit it may have.
“I think from an awareness standpoint, the work has been very successful. I think folks who wouldn't have been exposed to some of the realities, to some of the perspectives of these children, have absolutely seen it, and internalised it. As far as direct result on the children themselves, it's a much harder thing to quantify, and I wish I knew.
However, McCarty is buoyed by the fact that the Kayany Foundation, which has built schools for Syrian refugees, has begun selling War-Toys prints in auctions.
“They’re using that money to fund an art therapy program that will be ongoing, and actually run by the art therapist I found and worked with. That's sort of the direct benefit on a much smaller, micro level but makes me feel great.”
While McCarty would usually endeavour to recreate the scenes where they occurred, this trip presented limitations.
“As a US citizen, I obviously can't go to Syria without great risk to myself and anyone I'm with. Instead, we’d work around the refugee camps. We’d work in the places that the children would know, and so you can still get their involvement and their perspective and show the current reality of their situation.
“But this trip in particular, and getting to know the kids as well as I did, I saw a lot more factual accounts, meaning the first time I ever saw barrel bombs labelled as barrel bombs, even as ‘Assad's barrel bombs’. The kids were very specific about those types of bombs.
“And [there was also] a lot more conceptual stuff. There's one photo about the ghost of war. There was a girl talking about how the ghost of war travelled from Palestine to Iraq to Syria, and the implication was that they would come to Lebanon and she would never ever be safe.”
The image, ‘Ghosts of War’, features toy military tanks and soldiers, as well as gruesome-looking skeletons wielding swords, amid smoke and rubble.
“That was the only way we could think to illustrate it, because it was sort of this violent travelling and she didn't actually have skeletons and she didn't have tanks and things in her drawing, but to represent what she had said so plainly, that was the best way to do it. And those were the toys that we could find as well. That’s always part of the challenge.”
The nature of the images – a partnering of real-life settings with everyday toys – offer compelling but child-like perspectives into the experience of war, with the children playing the role of art director.
It is a universal language. I’ve always loved toys. I've always loved that as a means of communication.
“This is their perspective. It does have an impact,” says McCarty. “That's one of the things for me, certainly, is that it is disarming. It is a universal language. I’ve always loved toys. I've always loved that as a means of communication.”
In one image, ‘Colourful War’, toy tanks, blocks and a helicopter – all in bright colours – make for a cheerful and innocuous scene in the desert. But the reality of the story behind the image is far more distressing. War is “normal” for many of these children.
“Military toys are all over,” notes McCarty. “Everywhere where I've worked so far, from Gaza to Israel to Lebanon, you can find almost the identical toys.”
McCarty believes the demand for such toys stems from a natural desire in children to “want to play with the things that are around them”.
“For refuge children who have been exposed to war, it is incredibly natural for them to seek out war toys, or guns, and that kind of thing because through play, again, [there is] that natural inherent deconstruction. They can begin to make sense of it in whatever context they have. It's not just play. It is very, very serious business that they are doing.”
Photographs by Brian McCarty.