Toy Shopping in Ukraine: War Toys Founder Brian McCarty Shares His Vision

Toy Shopping in Ukraine: War Toys Founder Brian McCarty Shares His Vision

Brian McCarty, a self-proclaimed toy geek and an incredible photographer, tells the stories many people don’t want to hear in a way familiar to the world. He depicts children’s accounts of conflict and loss through toys as an advocation against the horrors of war.

In December 2015, Fstoppers published an article about how ISIS stole one of Brian’s toy images, Cinderella, and used it for extremist propaganda. Almost eight years later, we find Brian at the Photoville Festival in New York, full of passion for what he does with War Toys®, and chat about the latest developments after returning from Ukraine.

A closeup of the War Toys figurine reveal at Photoville NYC 2023

This project has been his mission since 2011, and he has traveled to many war-torn regions like the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Isreal, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and now also Ukraine working with children in affected areas. He founded War Toys® NGO in 2019, and together with Art Therapists, they share the stories children tell through drawings. Brian then recreates the scenes kids draw by purchasing local toys, visiting the sites, and photographing them. He mentions how so many of the toys are universal: “It developed over a number of years. I was traveling to all these places and literally seeing the exact same toys.”

This is what makes his imagery so powerful. We all encounter toys at some point in our lives, and we all understand the language of play. Brian’s images take away the religious, racial, and cultural walls. They remove the "us and them” argument because we know those toys; we played with them. Viewing the drawing of War Family and Brian’s image side by side, it hits home... civilian children are in the crossfire, and all they want to be is children. They don’t understand what it's about, why their homes are destroyed, their parents killed, and why they are being shoved back and forth between whoever wins.

You rarely come across important photographic work. There are vast amounts of fantastic work, but significant photographs are generally reserved for photojournalists. The work Brian produces and, by extension, what War Toys® encompasses is truly a flame in the darkness. From art-therapy-based photographic collaborations to toy development and distribution, he walks the talk. At the Photoville festival, he’s unveiling the prototypes of non-combatant toys meticulously designed to honor photojournalists.

The first two figurines are based on photojournalists Byron Smith and Veronique de Viguerie. War Toys® have meticulously gotten information from the people they base the toys on, friends and family. For example, Byron’s figure includes the two Fujifilm X-Pro3 cameras he currently carries.


This shift in conventional thinking allows children to change their gameplay and become familiar with heroes without weapons. When you open the War Toys ® website, the first words you read are: “Playing war to grow peace”, which sums up the entire program well. Toys are culturally universal, and if children can be exposed to the idea of non-combatant toy soldiers, they might start to see the world differently and create their own stories. Conventional combat sets force a user to choose a side because all the characters are designed as soldiers. Brian wants to allow kids to expand the play options and introduce non-combat options into their imagination that save civilians. This will enable children to identify with a peaceful protagonist rather than the old-school gun-toting action figure.

Brian hopes that War Toys® can become a “non-profit toy company that can keep giving this level of the market better designs, workable designs, things that help kids and invest in places that no one other than non-profit organizations can.” As he says, it creates tiny ripples that on their own seem insignificant but, measured together, can shift global perceptions. More figurines are in the pipeline, including aid workers, frontline rescuers and photojournalists, and a digital board game. To provide support or for more info, visit Brian at the Photoville Festival until the 18th of June or visit the website.

Images used with permission of Brian McCarty

Géran Raath's picture

Geran Raath is a dad with a camera who studied Production Design only to become a photographer. He married his creative director, model, MUA and muse. (1 person) Heavily influenced by cinema, he clings to retro values, yet he's excited about the machines taking over.

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