The Heartbreaking Story Behind An Image ISIS Passed Off As Its Own

Photo: Brian McCarty.
Artist Brian McCarty uses art therapy to work with children in conflict zones, encouraging them to express and reflect on their firsthand experiences with war. The U.S.-based artist then re-creates these scenes as photographs using locally found toys.

McCarty's striking images place the audience at ground level, belly in the dirt alongside the artist and his camera. His art invites viewers to consider how a child playing in the street might witness these horrific scenes of war.

With refugees being vilified in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, these images are an important reminder of what they have been through and what they are fleeing.

But McCarty was shocked to learn that his art was being used for an entirely different, more sinister purpose: The Islamic State group had stolen one of his images and turned it into propaganda.

Earlier this year, McCarty was testing a beta version of Pixsy, a service that helps photographers search for instances of photo theft. "One of the first things they found was this," he told Refinery29. "It was completely surreal and bizarre."

McCarty’s original image (left) shows a Cinderella figurine standing in the desert as missiles rain down, symbolizing the vulnerability of children during war. The altered image (right) replaces Cinderella with an ISIS flag in a bubble, alongside Arabic text that reads, "Under the Crusader bombing…the Islamic-Caliphate State." The manipulated image casts ISIS as both victim and victor, bombarded by Western missiles but impervious to them — a shocking contradiction to McCarty’s original intent.

"Something that is intended to be anti-war has been turned into something that’s promoting the central ideas behind it," McCarty said.

He still struggles with the question: What do you do when one of the world’s most notorious terrorist organizations steals your image?

McCarty's work will be shown in the spring of 2016 at the Serpentine Galleries in London as part of an exhibition and auction to support the Kayany Foundation, an organization that gives aid to and promotes education among Syrian refugee children. He spoke to Refinery29 from his home in Los Angeles about what he hopes his War-Toys project can still accomplish and how he continues to believe in the power of art to promote peace. Click through for the interview and examples of his work.
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Photo: Brian McCarty.
What inspired the War-Toys project?
"In 1996, I was asked to participate in an exhibition in Zagreb in the immediate aftermath of the Croatian War of Independence. I decided to look at war toys as cultural artifacts. Many years after that, I became aware of art therapy and met some amazing folks who work in that area. The idea was to work with these children in a safe way, and turn them into my art directors.

"The methodology has evolved over time, and I’ve recently taken on a dedicated art therapist named Myra Saad who lived through the Lebanese Civil War as a child. We’ve worked together with Syrian refugees, and Lebanese children affected by sectarian fighting. The experience of working with her has been so positive.”

Caption: "Girls Tortured, One Killed." In an art-based interview, a shy 9-year-old girl shared some of the horrors she witnessed before her family fled Syria. 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 either girl had been raped, the phallic nature of the soldier’s baton raised serious concerns. The girl was referred to the United National High Commissioner on Refugees for additional counseling. Unfortunately, resources are so scarce that only extreme cases typically receive appropriate attention
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Photo: Courtesy of Brian McCarty.
The drawing that inspired Girls Tortured, One Killed.
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Photo: Brian McCarty.
What do the toys signify to you?
"I use locally found toys, so you get both socioeconomic commentary and a direct connection to the place where I’m traveling. Looking at conflict using toys and art is an inherent deconstruction of war. War is so complicated and so beyond the realm of normal existence that you have to be able to take a step back and really look at it in that way.

“I have come to realize that folks who are normally turned off by war or don’t look at war in their individual experiences will pay attention to this.

"A few years ago, the Huffington Post published some of my work, and I was initially insulted to see it in the ‘Weird News’ section, but it made me realize this was a success for the project. The Weird News section gets 10 times the hits of the Art section — that maybe says something about us as people.

"I think those experiences sort of prepared me for the ISIS theft. It’s shocking and upsetting and horrible, but at the same time it’s allowed an opportunity to get the work seen. You have to find the good in it, really."

Caption: "Fleeing Syria." Location: The road from Beirut to Damascus, approaching the Syrian border. Luckier than some, a young refugee drew a picture about his family fleeing war in Syria in a van. He spoke about the mean people they’ve encountered in Lebanon. Some local communities are hostile to refugees and exploitative of their situation, turning them into indentured servants. Many children within the refugee camps work on local farms to earn what they can for the survival of their families, paying for the most basic of needs.
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Photo: Courtesy of Brian McCarty.
How do you ask the children you work with to start creating these drawings?
“I work with great organizations like the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the Israel Trauma Coalition, the Kayany Foundation, the Nader Association, The Spafford Children’s Center.

"Their staff members conduct the initial interviews, and the questions are asked in very specific ways so as not to open up any new wounds or to cause any harm whatsoever. The idea is to make it as positive and safe as possible, even though you’re talking about some very traumatic memories that these children may have.

"Myra starts with children in a circle playing, talking, throwing balls — just engaging with each other and with the process. Then we’ll open up a dialogue: 'This is Brian, this is what he’s doing, these are the photos he’s done previously, he’s interested in getting your perspectives. Draw a story from your life that you want shared for this project.' Many of the children will make drawings about war and their experiences, but some will share a story about the cat that comes to their window. It’s meant to be open-ended, it’s meant to be their choice to share or not share. It’s worked out beautifully."

Caption: Children making drawings at an art therapy class at the Spafford Children’s Center in Jerusalem.
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Photo: Brian McCarty.
You take children’s drawings and re-create them as photographs. As an interpreter of the children’s art yourself, how do you make sure that your images stay true to what they are trying to express, without molding it to your own purpose?
“There’s always going to be interpretation and a level of artistic license that happens, but I hope it doesn’t detract from their voices. That’s why it’s important to show the drawings alongside the photos, so that when I perhaps have failed, that is obvious to the viewer.

“Sometimes, like I said with the girl from Gaza, the children will bury the most important elements within the drawings, as if to protect them. These may be the things they are most afraid of or feel the most strongly about. I think one of the important elements of the project is to bring those sorts of things forth from the drawings.”

Caption: "Last Dinner With My Father." A girl at school run by the Kayany Foundation drew a seemingly innocuous scene of her family at dinner. Talking about the drawing with art therapist Myra Saad, 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.
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Photo: Courtesy of Brian McCarty.
The drawing that inspired Last Dinner With My Father.
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Photo: Courtesy of Brian McCarty.
A recent feature on displaced children in The New York Times Magazine describes how, in the context of war, we depend upon children to imbue the world around them with their own resilience. How have you witnessed this resilience in your own travels?
“It’s always amazing. Not only the children who do the war drawings but also the ones that will do the happy drawings, that will draw the cat or them playing or their hopes for the future — especially in Gaza, it’s just remarkable. It’s such a bad situation for these kids, and it always has been, and the things they’ve seen and experience on a daily basis are just beyond comprehension. But then you still get happy, playful, wonderful little drawings. The bottom line is that kids will be kids, especially if they’re given opportunities to heal, to recover from these traumas.

“There’s a concept in psychotherapy now called ‘Post-Traumatic Growth’ and the idea is that if these kids — and this is a giant ‘if’ — if they’re given opportunities to get past these events, they become much stronger people. It’s the silver lining to really horrible experiences. I’ve definitely seen a lot of that.”

Caption: A Syrian child holds up a drawing she made after an art-therapy session at a refugee camp in Lebanon.
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Photo: Courtesy of Brian McCarty.
Can you tell us about the girl whose drawing inspired the photograph with Cinderella and the missiles?
“She was at the Asma Elementary School in Gaza City — it’s a UNRWA-run school. A group of about 20 girls was brought in to do the art-based interview, and she was among them.

“She created that drawing, which is not dissimilar from a lot of girls’ drawings, and in it there were tanks and planes and helicopters and soldiers and all this stuff. In the post-drawing interview, what they choose to talk about really reveals the most important elements; this is what I take most of my direction from. She only really talked about the girl and the missiles, so that became the inspiration for the photo.”

Caption: The drawing that originally inspired McCarty’s image with Cinderella and the missiles.
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Photo: Brian McCarty.
The fact that ISIS appropriated your photograph is obviously very different from a typical copyright infringement case where you might take legal action. How have you decided to respond to this?
“I had some long discussions with Pixsy; their founder [Daniel Foster] reached out to me after I called attention to it. He talked to some friends at the International Criminal Courts and the U.N., but he and I agreed that the likelihood of any kind of positive outcome is very low. Even if we got them for a billion dollars and I could use that to fund art therapy programs around the world, that’s still terrorism money. I can’t and don’t want to touch it. The only good that can come of this is bringing attention to these children and their account and their perspectives.”
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Photo: Courtesy of Brian McCarty.
Most of your images use generic figurines; why did you select a more recognizable subject (Disney’s Cinderella) for this one?
“What I choose to shoot is limited by what I can find. I’ll audition things in my head when I’m walking to markets or shops, but sometimes to find a little girl doll is a real challenge. Seeing this small Cinderella doll — it was a key chain, actually, and a bootleg one, horribly painted and misshapen — just struck a chord. I was using something that has the built-in pop-culture weight to it and equating it to a young girl who loved these things."

“In the interview, I asked these girls, ‘Barbie or Fullah?’ Fullah is a Middle Eastern doll, a Muslim Barbie, essentially. We would have conversations about the things they loved and the things that excited them. Cinderella and SpongeBob SquarePants, they just loved. So to be able to incorporate some of that into the image was very important.”

Caption: McCarty sets up the shot with Cinderella and the missiles.
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Photo: Brian McCarty.
“All art is propaganda, [but] not all propaganda is art,” writes George Orwell. How do you interpret the new message that ISIS is trying to get across in the altered image?
“What I understood the message to be was that ‘even if war destroys everything, the Islamic Caliphate State and sign will survive no matter what.’ It’s subject to different interpretations.

“What I find ironic is that I work with children who sometimes identify with ISIS. In Northern Lebanon, I was working in a center called Nader that brings in boys off the streets from both the Alawite and Sunni groups and sort of forces them to be together. One of those young boys strongly associated with ISIS, drew the ISIS flag and put his name underneath it, and made drawings about hidden weapons caches, all of that stuff. I have nothing against these kids, but the organization — the amount of harm and wrong they’re doing in the world is unbelievable.”

Caption: In his drawing, a Syrian refugee showed his dream to fly away from a world of war. The resulting photo was taken just outside of his camp using toys and other objects found less than 1 kilometer down the road.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.