* BRIAN McCARTY
Brian McCarty è sempre stato bambino mai cresciuto. E non si è mai vergognato di ammetterlo, visto che ha fatto della sua grande passione, i giocattoli, i modelli delle sue foto. Brian infatti è un celebre fotografo di Art Toys; non gli interessano le modelle magroline, ma più le bambole rotondette, non gli piacciono i modelli tutti muscoli e niente cervello, preferisce i playmobil tutti plastica e niente capelli! Brian usa i toys come soggetti preferiti, li inserisce in contesti reali e inizia a scattare.
Dopo anni passati a fotografare in giro per il mondo giocattoli in vinile e in stoffa degli artisti più famosi (Gary Baseman, Toki Doki, FriendsWithYou) Brian sembra però essere passato dalla fanciullezza tutta colori pastello all’età adulta.
Il suo ultimo progetto, War Toys, racconta di una realtà che troppo spesso ci dimentichiamo, la realtà, atroce, che un bambino può vivere in una zona di guerra. Spesso, da bambini, ci siamo divertiti a “giocare alla guerra”, McCarty ha deciso di fotografare i luoghi in cui la guerra non è un gioco, e lo fa anche con l’aiuto dei bambini che incontra nelle città dove realizza i suoi set, ispirati ai racconti dei piccoli. Senza dimenticare la sua vocazione: fotografare giocattoli. E quindi ecco soldatini di plastica e soldati in carne ed ossa condividere lo stesso scatto, in primo piano una battaglia mimata, sullo sfondo gente sulla strada di un possibile non-ritorno.
Abbiamo chiesto a Brian di raccontarci la sua esperienza, quello che ci ha scritto è un testo lungo, denso, pieno di anima e sentimento, forse talmente intimo da non poter essere tradotto; abbiamo deciso di lasciarlo in inglese, quasi a ricreare quel certo spaesamento che si prova a sentir parlare una lingua straniera. Se vi sembra troppo faticoso, lasciate che siano le immagini a stupirvi, a farvi pensare… addirittura a farvi divertire, almeno per quel secondo prima di pensare che no, in quelle città non si gioca alla guerra, la si vive.
I tried to remain focused on the plastic army men in front of me, despite the sounds of protestors growing louder and louder. “FREE, FREE PALESTINE” they chanted. They came from Ramallah and East Jerusalem, to the Kalandia checkpoint to demonstrate and dare the young Israeli soldiers to retaliate, to invite their weekly dose of stun grenades and tear gas. But it’s not why I was there. I didn’t want to protest. I didn’t even want to photograph the human drama happening around me. Their stories would get told without my help. I reminded myself that I was there to play with toys. I picked up the tiny solider who been blown over by the wind and got my camera ready.
“Play” doesn’t accurately convey what I was doing, mostly because the word doesn’t get the respect it deserves. In the 18+ years that I had been a professional toy photographer, my playfulness had been an asset, but this was something different, something closer to what originally inspired me to photograph my toys.
At an age when I was supposed to grow up and start thinking about girls and cars and all the other things that typically consume adolescent boys, I hung on to the playthings that had served me so well. Like all children, I had tackled some pretty tough questions about being human through the simple act of playing. The backyard adventures of Han Solo and GI Joe were organic reflections of the hopes and fears that I experienced in daily life. These plastic totems helped me communicate and cope, even if it just seemed like childish fun. When I found my mother’s old Yashicamat camera, this play became more purposeful, and I had the perfect excuse to keep my toys from being relegated to the attic.
At first, I tried to emulate the imagery that I saw in commercials, cartoons, and early anime that by some miracle got afternoon airtime in Memphis, Tennessee in the 1980’s. Snapshots of toys frozen in action poses slowly gave way to narrative tableaus. It wasn’t long until my teenage angst found its way through. The elaborate scenes that I created in front of the camera directly mirrored the battle of hormones and awkwardness happening inside of me.
Mellow dramatic and melancholic as this early work might have been, it set the stage for what became my approach going forward. Through the camera, toys were never objects. They were surrogates, through which I got to take on a variety of personas and personalities, all little projections of myself. I was able to act out and explore a huge range of topics, covering
everything from family dynamics and sexuality to self-doubt and identity. Without knowing I had done so, my photography took on traits more akin to play therapy than traditional art.
It took years for me to realize the connection, longer still to see its true potential. In 1996, I photographed a small study of “war-toys” for an exhibition in Zagreb. It was immediately following the Croatian War of Independence, and I was working on a grant at a creative research center in Italy. At age 22, I tried to examine war in the abstract, using a GI Joe as a cultural artifact, yet disconnected from any actual events. At age 36, I decided to push my photography one step closer towards play therapy and look at war from the perspective of the people living in it.
On the 11-hour flight from Newark to Tel Aviv, I didn’t sleep a wink. After nearly a year of preparations and planning, it all came down to a backpack full of equipment and a very large leap of faith. I believed in an idea, enough to max out my credit cards and put wedding plans on hold. But I wasn’t positive it could be done. After so many years of using toy photography to act out and explore aspects of myself, it was going to be a real challenge to adapt my process and become an observer, or more accurately, a facilitator. For the first time, the toys I photographed wouldn’t be me. They would be projections, and in some cases ghosts of actual people from actual events, none of which I had witnessed.
Bleary eyed and more than a little jetlagged, I did my best to explain my business in Israel to the IDF officer questioning me at customs. “War”? He said. “Why not go to Afghanistan or Africa to explore war? Why Israel? Why Palestinians? Why children? What do toys have to do with any of this?!? Through the extreme haze of travel, I mumbled something about play therapy and art therapy and locally bought toys and socioeconomic commentary. Then fearing that this answer didn?t explain my choice of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, I rambled off a dissertation about the human condition reflected in the history of war in the region, covering Jerusalem?s rule by the Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Fatimites, Ayyubids, Ottoman Turks, Mamluks, and Mongols.
Unimpressed, the officer repeated, “Why are you working with the Palestinians”? I tried to explain, “My project is neutral. I need to cover both sides. Yes, I’m here to work with a Palestinian NGO, but I’ve been speaking with an Israeli counterpart for months. I’ll be back to work with them soon. In an effort to avoid several hours of additional interrogation, I booted up my laptop and showed the officer email correspondence that confirmed my story. Reluctantly, he gave me my passport back and sent me on my way. Around midnight, I grabbed a taxi from Ben Gurion Airport and headed into occupied East Jerusalem.
In the cool mist, the Arab Quarter of the Old City seemed otherworldly. I made my way through winding stone streets, up a seemingly impossible amount of stairs to the highest point along the wall between the Damascus and Herod Gates. There, in a compound continuously occupied since 1881, is the Spafford Children’s Center. I was shown a back stairway that led to a set of unused rooms that would be my home for the next four weeks. I said goodnight to my host, settled into my cot, and waited for the sun to rise.
To quote Plato, “You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” The next morning, I hoped to prove this. Spafford’s staff had graciously invited me to observe their work with local children. In addition to arts & crafts, dancing, and language lessons, the center has a large psychosocial and psycho-trauma program. I would be working with therapists to conduct interviews with children using principles of expressive art therapy. My goal was to understand their experiences and invite the boys and girls to essentially art direct photo shoots that would put their stories into context. It was an abstract endeavor until I actually sat in on one of the sessions.
The children rushed to grab large sheets of paper and pastels, then gleefully carved out spots on the floor to work. Their enthusiasm made the images they drew all the more disturbing. My heart sank as I watched a little girl quietly, intensely coloring in pools of blood. The violence was everywhere, in each one of their drawings. Some showed literal events that the children had witnessed. Others focused on lingering fears, fears of attack, fears of imprisonment, fears of losing their family. Pictures were filled with bombs, dogs, missiles, soldiers, tanks, helicopters, and the dead.
Yet no matter the scene, there was usually at least one smiling child, either being shot or somehow observing the events. Many of the kids were too young to even consider putting a frown on their stick figures. To them, it wasn’t connected to an emotion. It’s just how people looked in drawings. It’s hard to find a more concrete example showing the power of art therapy. Clearly, these children had strong emotions and opinions about what was happening around them, but at such a young age, they lacked the ability to directly communicate their feelings.
I roamed the crowded, open-air markets of East Jerusalem, stopping at every vendor with toys on his table. For a few shekels, I could buy the same Chinese-made army men found in most dollar stores in the US. As I picked up various playsets and vehicles, I auditioned them all in my mind. Somewhere among the poly bags and boxes were the toys that would represent people from
the children’s drawings. They had to be accurate.
I laid out my cast of plastic characters along the barrier wall just past the checkpoint into the West Bank. An unforgettable drawing made by one of the children was on my phone. It showed a soldier guarding the wall and shooting a little boy in head. His bloody body laid flat against the ground.
I thought I heard yelling in the distance as I used a syringe to spread drops of fake blood around the plastic figure. By the time I placed the army men into the composition, the crowds of people were fully formed. They were chanting, and yelling, and advancing on the checkpoint. People in cars waiting to cross the border were honking furiously while trying to get out of the way. Over loudspeakers, the protestors were told to disperse, first in Arabic, then in English. I had already decided to stay focused on the toys when the tear gas and stun grenades started to go off.
As the crowds ran and people screamed, I looked through my viewfinder and pressed the shutter button. What I saw through the lens was what I came to photograph a little boy’s perspective on life in a warzone. A blurry scene of plastic army men next to the barrier wall was broken by two figures in stark focus one, a solider crouching, pointing his gun the other, a little boy lying facedown in the dirt, blood flowing from his body.
Only now does it seem mad that I largely ignored what was happening around me, that I chose not to see the men and women with red faces and swollen eyes, running from the tear gas. Yet I have no regrets. The camera crews on both sides of the border recorded every moment. Except for the one that I captured. It was an interpretation, but one that showed an unseen perspective on war, given by a child.
In a few months, I’ll be heading back to the Middle East to continue my work with both Israeli and Palestinian children. After that, I’m heading to Colombia to collaborate with children in the towns of Bogota, Medellin, and Segovia. Then, there are unfortunately no shortages of war zones to choose from.