Photographer Recreates Drawings by Kids in War Zones Using Toys

Photographer Brian McCarty spent two decades shooting images for some of the biggest toy and kids media companies in the world. Since 2011, however, he has been collaborating with children who have been affected by war through a project titled War Toys.

Each work in the project starts with a drawing by a child based on their account of a conflict. McCarty then uses toys to recreate each of those artworks as a photo.

“The project invokes principles and practices of expressive art therapy to safely gather and articulate children’s accounts of war,” the photographer writes on his website. “Under the guidance of a specialized therapist and working through NGOs and UN agencies, boys and girls become art directors for narrative photos of locally sourced toys.”

A young Syrian refugee girl draws herself as the lone survivor of a missile strike that killed her entire family.
An Israeli boy draws about his fear of the seemingly endless stream of rockets that he imagined falling on his house.
An 11-year-old Palestinian boy draws his friend who was killed by a soldier in unknown circumstances at the Israeli Separation Barrier.

Originally started as a photo series, War Toys became the core of a non-profit organization, also called War Toys, that McCarthy founded in 2019 as a response to “seeing firsthand the severe effects of displacement and war-related trauma on these children.”

“Advocating for children who have been affected by war remains one of War Toys’ core missions,” the non-profit’s website reads. “A unique, art-therapy-based process allows us to safely work with potentially traumatized children, responsibly gather their firsthand accounts, and recreate their stories on location through an accessible, disarming filter of play.”

A 9-year-old Iraqi boy draws his home that he said saved him and his family — a house they had to flee when it was destroyed in fighting.
A child draws an account of fleeing their homes in the middle of the night to escape ISIS-controlled territory.
An Iraqi boy draws the battle for the town of Qayyarah, where nearby oil fields were set on fire by Islamic State fighters fighting against Iraqi forces headed to Mosul.
A young Syrian refugee girl draws her experience adjusting to the harsh conditions in an informal encampment in Lebanon near the border.
An Iraqi girl draws an account of a woman being stoned to death for not wearing ISIS-approved clothing.
A young girl draws a Daesh soldier placing a bomb onto a car and causing an explosion.
A girl draws her experience of seeing the disemboweled and dismembered body of an Islamic State fighter lying in her street as she and her family started fleeing their home.

In addition to art therapy and fieldwork, War Toys also has programs that provide toys and education for children across the world.

An Iraqi boy draws a tank killing an ISIS fighter.
An Iraqi boy draws his experience crossing an ISIS checkpoint with his family while returning home and then seeing the fighter shooting people.
An Iraqi boy draws himself and his parents returning home and being targeted by a helicopter from above.
A young Iraqi boy draws a helicopter shooting a girl in the head without explaining any further details.
A young Iraqi girl draws her father guiding her across a bridge that had been destroyed. A piece of wood had been used to span the broken section.

Helping Children in Ukraine

In response to the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, War Toys is currently fundraising for a developing program in Ukraine.

“We’re working with First Aid of the Soul, a grassroots organization formed by Ukrainian art therapist Nathalie Robelot,” McCarty tells PetaPixel. “In a remarkably short amount of time, Nathalie has built a huge network of Ukrainian mental health professionals, ready to work.

“In the short term, to increase Ukraine’s mental health capacity, they’ll be training caregivers in expressive-therapy-based activities that can help mitigate the trauma in war-affected children while the fighting continues. When things are more stable and children are physically safe, they’ll move to providing treatment for PTSD and other similar conditions caused by the war.

“War Toys will be going over to work within this network of therapists to gather and articulate accounts from children under their care. First things first, though. We want to get these kids support now!”

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You can find more of McCarty’s work on his website and through War Toys.

Header image: An Iraqi girl draws her account of her family fleeing Mosul while fighting raged on less than a kilometer away.