The War Toys project uses photos and art therapy to help kids who lived through war

Thursday, May 12, 2022

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Brian McCarty uses toys as part of art therapy to help children who have been traumatized by war. The kids meet with a trained art therapist who helps them draw and talk about their experiences.



Back in 1996, photographer Brian McCarty visited war-torn Croatia, and it made him think of an earlier war.

BRIAN MCCARTY: I had thought about conversations with my father about Vietnam and his experiences. And he was extremely reluctant to share anything really in-depth or personal.


Extremely reluctant, unless the two were playing with toy soldiers. So McCarty’s a kid. He’s got these little plastic figures. He’s playing with them, and his dad is there. And his dad suddenly starts talking about McCarty’s grandfather, who served in World War II. Memories of that childhood experience gave McCarty an idea.

MCCARTY: I found letters that my father wrote home to my mom from Vietnam and decided to recreate those moments with a vintage 1960s, you know, off-the-shelf G.I. Joe figure.

MARTINEZ: McCarty made photos of the scenes he created. That led to another idea.

MCCARTY: I thought that it’d be amazing to encourage more generational conversations to stop cycles of violence.

INSKEEP: In 2011, he started a project called War Toys, using his photographs and art therapy to help kids who had lived through war.

MCCARTY: I learned about art therapy and play therapy and this idea of using War Toys as a way to bridge that gap between people who have experienced war and haven’t experienced war.

INSKEEP: The kids meet with a trained art therapist who helps them draw and talk about their experiences of war.

MARTINEZ: McCarty then takes the children’s drawings, travels to the places where the events happened, recreates those traumatic war images using toys and makes photos of them.

MCCARTY: I think it’s so important to focus on the stories of children from war because people look past the rhetoric and see those moments. That really is the takeaway, that we are all the same.

MARTINEZ: War Toys has worked with children from countries like Syria, Iraq and Israel. And McCarty is now working with children affected by the war in Ukraine.


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