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.