Toy photographer Brian McCarty was recently poking around a site aimed at tracking unauthorized commercial usage of his art when he found something unsettling: The Islamic State appeared to have ripped off his work, Photoshopped it a bit and turned it into recruiting propaganda.
He posted the image to Facebook to ask his Arabic-speaking friends if the words on the doctored picture said what he thought they did.
“One wrote back almost immediately and said, ‘Oh yeah,’ ” McCarty said. In 2011, McCarty, 41, began a project called WAR-TOYS. He teams with non-governmental organizations and with the help of art therapists who specialize in helping children, McCarty creates photographs, based on interviews and drawings, that capture the children’s memories. He’s traveled to Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon and Israel and plans to continue the project in South Sudan, Mali, Nigeria, Kenya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Ukraine and Colombia.
McCarty uses toys he finds in each locale to create tableaus, then captures them with his camera. So far he has 50 such photographs, one of which the Islamic State commandeered. The simplicity of the photographs is instantly affecting, particularly when they include modern-looking toys in garish, man-made colors set against violent backgrounds. In one, a girl’s house in Israel is represented by a bright pink-and-purple doll house. Two figures stand beside it as it’s besieged by missiles. In another, a woman in an abaya carries a child out of a bombed-out building guarded by a military tank.
The picture the Islamic State stole holds a specific memory for McCarty.
In 2012, McCarty was working with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency in Gaza City when he met a girl at Asma Co-Ed Elementary School. She drew a picture “filled with helicopters and tanks and soldiers,” but when she spoke to McCarty, she spoke singularly of herself and the missiles she had seen.
“A certain site or target will be hit half a dozen times just to ensure its destruction, and that resonates with them,” McCarty explained.
So he set out to find a toy that could represent a little girl and settled on a misshapen Cinderella keychain. He found missiles included in a toy army set. At the United Nation’s request, McCarty scouted for a location outside the Palestinian refugee camps and away from the city. He found a bombed-out resort, and as concussion blasts echoed in the background, he set up his shot and took the picture.
McCarty was surprised and angered to find that the Islamic State had stolen his art and re-purposed it as a recruiting tool.
“For the most part, I believe someone just saw a graphic image and went, ‘Oh, I could probably put a flag and copy of the Koran there pretty easy.’ But at the same time, whoever did that would had to have seen the photograph in that context, in the context of the project,” McCarty said. “I was tempted to reach out to anyone from ISIS and demand an explanation as my artist-with-a-capital-A ego demanded, but I really quickly just got past that and realized there’s no point in engaging them. On the crimes of ISIS, this is probably near the bottom, certainly. To me personally, it is an ideological slap in the face.”
The Islamic State, also known as ISIS, has a twisted relationship with art. It understands its significance to humanity, and so it is unsurprising that such a brutal and nihilistic organization would want to wipe it out.
The Islamic State’s insistence on obliterating priceless antiquities (the ones it doesn’t smuggle and sell to fund its terrorism) calls to mind words from filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming: “People are not defined by their wars,” she told The Post last December. “People are defined by their arts. That’s how we remember things.”
However, the Islamic State also understands the value of image-crafting, as evidenced by its high-production value recruiting videos, and its willingness to court potential joiners through social media.
By taking art that was inspired by the drawings of children — and not just any children, but children who are survivors of war — and twisting it for its own purposes, the Islamic State doesn’t just get a new recruiting poster. It communicates its contempt for the most vulnerable members of society, the ones most likely to unite people across ethnic, religious and political lines. The children whose experiences serve as the basis for the WAR-TOYS photographs are between 8 and 12.
“For me, it’s so important to talk to children and to get their perspective because of their inherent ability to deconstruct really, really complicated issues,” McCarty explained. “At the end of the day, to these children, whoever is shooting at them is the bad guy, and that really is important to understand. I don’t care if you’re talking about Israeli/Palestinian, Iraqi/Kurdish, and even kids whose parents are in ISIS. It’s important to understand that these are personal experiences and get beyond the politics and vast differences and beliefs, and kind of let that be the starting point.”
McCarty remembered the way his mother reacted to his curiosity about a mass shooting that took place at a San Ysidro, Calif., McDonald’s in 1984. The shooter, James Huberty, killed 21 people, including several children, and injured 19 others. News coverage of the event included a widely circulated image of one of the victims, a boy outside the restaurant with his bicycle. It reached McCarty in his hometown of Memphis.
“It stuck with me so much so that I kept the photo, ’cause this kid was essentially my age, not much older, and he had been killed in this thing, and no one would talk to me about it,” McCarty said. “And my mom found the photograph and made me throw it away and said how wrong it was. It’s just not something you think about. Even at 9, soon to be 10, I knew this was the role we were in and I was curious about it. A lot of it came out through my play and my drawings. And that was how I found my place and made sense of stuff, and it’s how all kids do it. Kids have a way of contextualizing and reconstructing in a way that adults can’t.”
The Parsons graduate began photographing toys as a way to keep playing with his boyhood trinkets past the age when he was supposed to grow out of them. Now a successful toy photographer for Nickelodeon and popular toy brands, McCarty uses his day job to fund the WAR-TOYS project and encourage us to remember and value the experiences of children. McCarty recalled a trip to northern Lebanon where he encountered Sunni and Alawite Muslim orphans living together in a boarding school established by an NGO. He worked with one child who strongly identified with the Islamic State, and said he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.
“In one session, you had kids that were showing the Lebanese army mowing over ISIS, and in this exact same one, you had one who identified so strongly with ISIS that he drew the flag and put his name, his own name, on the flag underneath Mohammed’s and then drew about the secret cache weapons he knew about that would ‘destroy the Lebanese army and their cowardly tanks.’ It was amazing, in one place, to see these two things,” McCarty said. “Even though I couldn’t be more against ISIS, couldn’t hate them more, I still think the children who are either under their rule or identify with them, their perspectives are just as valid.
“I still think it’s really important to see them and understand them. We’re fighting ideology. We’re not fighting a conventional war, as much as folks might want to make it into that, so we need to get it.”