Conflict through the eyes of children

Photographers often capture images of children during conflict. They have the power to provoke widespread response.  They reflect a sense of helplessness and innocence — often without political undertones.

Take the image of the young Syrian boy who drowned while attempting to flee to Europe, for example, only to wash ashore on a beach in Turkey. The image was truly shocking, and provoked unprecedented condemnation of the refugee crises and the international community’s response to it.  The photograph was unique in its display of vulnerability – the emotional outcry was sparked by the notion that this child was obviously too young to have played a role in any sort of politics.

It is no surprise that artists and activists have begun initiating projects that not only attempt to project the lives of innocent youth to a global audience, but have also spearheaded creative solutions allowing children to tell their own stories.

War Toys, Israel 2012


One of these projects that stands out in its unique ability to capture children’s memories of life in conflict is called War Toys. LA-based photographer Brian McCarty set out to recreate the images of children’s lives in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank depicted through drawings they had made at therapeutic art centers. McCartney took the drawings and then, using only local materials, would recreate the drawings using toys. The resulting images are immediately powerful. But on a deeper level, they successfully reveal the perspective of a child in their sense of helplessness as violence engulfs the image.

“I’ve chosen to be as neutral as possible for the project,” McCarty explains in an interview with Wired. “Much like the kids, I only know that the person shooting at me is a bad guy. They are ‘them,’ no matter which side of the border I’m on.”

McCarty working on War Toys, Israel, 2012


Beyond the success of these images in conveying the effect of conflict on youth, they also provide a therapeutic outlet for the children involved. By drawing their memories, they are able to express and process their emotions non-verbally. When possible, McCarty would even bring the child along on a shoot to immerse them in the creative process. “The children are generally happy that someone, especially a foreigner, cares about their perspectives,” McCarty notes. “They want to be heard and validated.”

A similar concept to McCarty’s “War-Toys” was conceived last year by the Australian aid organization Act For Peace. Like McCarty’s work, this project aimed to expose crises through the eyes of children experiencing it.

Refugee camp in Jordan, 2016


In lieu of directly asking the kids to recount their experiences, the organization provided disposable cameras to Syrian children in a refugee camp in Jordan. What is unique about the resulting images isn’t their intensity, but rather, their un-remarkability. The photographs show kids playing, lining up for school, swinging from tree branches – they could be kids anywhere. But that in itself speaks to the success of the project. Karen McGrath, one of the leaders on the project, explained it like this in an interview with I-D: “The photos really expressed their playfulness and the friendship between them all. I think it is a powerful reminder of the normal everyday kids involved in this conflict and makes us see them as kids we might know rather than a statistic or a news report.”

Refugee camp in Jordan, 2016


Both of these works opportunely took advantage of a medium that allowed them to remove any sort of political position to reveal only the direct effects of crises. By being exposed to a child’s perspective, the viewer approaches the issue from a state of neutrality. Ideally, this sort of work encourages an actionable response and a push for more child protection in conflict.

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