Here’s What Happens When ISIS Appropriates Your Artwork

Drew Tewksbury


A simple online image search changed artist Brian McCarty’s life forever.

The Los Angeles artist’s WAR-TOYS project places various figurines in precarious situations, which, he says, sees “armed conflict from the point-of-view of children, through their inherent ability to deconstruct incredibly complicated events.”

After using a service to track his images online, McCarty discovered that one of his photos was being used by the propaganda arm of the Islamic State, which altered his picture of bombs dropping on a Cinderella character to become an assault on an ISIS flag, stating in Arabic: “Under the Crusader bombing… the Islamic-Caliphate State.”

For WAR-TOYS, McCarty often worked with children in conflict areas, who helped to create the imagery for the photos. McCarty says his original photo was art-directed by a young girl at a school in Gaza, who created a drawing featuring a child with bombs raining down around her. To create her vision, McCarty found a Cinderella key-chain at a store in the area, placed army-men around the Disney character, and photographed the scene in the northern Gaza Strip.

When he saw ISIS images, he says he “was instantly reminded of that moment in East Jerusalem when I began to understand what the project meant. Stealing my work for commercial use is one thing. The ISIS theft is something completely different and far more disturbing. They took a little girl’s very real fear of war and turned it into something promoting extremist beliefs — ones at the core of unspeakable amounts of death and suffering.”

While much has been made of the artist’s work being appropriated by ISIS, McCarty says that the spirit of his project goes beyond that single image, instead tracing his project’s genesis to a mass shooting near the U.S./Mexico border crossing at San Ysidro in the 1980s. With the recent death spree wrought by a pair of shooters in San Bernardino, McCarty’s WAR-TOYS project even reflects the uncanny experiences often created by the media. Recently, media outlets broadcast scenes from when ravenous reporters besieged the residence of alleged killers Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, which revealed the contents of their domestic world, including toys populating their child’s crib. The juxtaposition of a kid’s environment and a world of violence is jarring. Like how the late Angeleno artist Mike Kelly’s stuffed animals sculptures — and his cover for a Sonic Youth album — forever added a dark subtext to seemingly innocuous objects, McCarty similarly makes toys into political statements.

Artbound recently caught up with McCarty who revealed what happened when he found out ISIS has appropriated his works, how working with traumatized children in conflict zones influenced his practice, and how his work relates to recent mass shootings around the world.


What was the inspiration for your WAR-TOYS Project?

WAR-TOYS in its current form took many years to develop — from a small 1996 study shot for an exhibition in Croatia to research into the use of art therapy to treat war-traumatized children. However, my inspiration and motivation traces back much further. In the summer of 1984, just before my 10th birthday, a gunman murdered 21 people at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California. It was the deadliest US mass shooting of the time, and one that included five children as victims. Two of them — Omarr Hernández and David Delgado — had just ridden their bikes to get some fries. Photos of their lifeless bodies, next to their BMX bikes, were on every front page the next day. I saw it, and even went so far as to save the photo. It was the first time I had made a connection to an event like this. These kids were almost the same age as me, just doing something my friends and I did all the time. And now they were dead.

My mother eventually found the photo and made me throw it away, saying that it wasn’t right to think about such things. Yet, I wasn’t ready to move past it. This seemed like something important and fundamental to understanding the world around me. As all children do, the events became reflected in my play and drawings. It’s how I deconstructed this piece of insanity and tried to make sense of it. Although I never found a sufficient explanation for why these things happen, I was eventually able to comprehend the events in San Ysidro from a simplified, easier-to-digest perspective. That is the power of a child’s play.

And that is the inspiration for WAR-TOYS — seeing armed conflict from the point-of-view of children, through their inherent ability to deconstruct incredibly complicated events. Beyond the politics, extremism, and tribal thinking, there are girls and boys caught in the middle. To these children, whomever is shooting at them is the bad guy, plain and simple. It doesn’t matter if those shooting have the best of intentions.

It’s important to understand their perspectives if we’re ever to make a difference.


How did you first find out that your art had been stolen by ISIS?

I was invited to try out a beta version of Pixsy. It’s an online service targeted to photographers that tracks image usage and helps go after commercial infringement. Signing up, that’s what I expected to find (and did). I’ve had my Art-Toy work stolen and used commercially more than a few times. I doubt there are many professional photographers left who haven’t faced the same thing. Hopefully, most have been spared what I found next.

Scrolling through Pixsy’s search results, I was dumbfounded to see my photo turned into a propaganda piece. I didn’t know how to react or what to do, so I wrote Pixsy. Their founder Daniel Foster emailed me back and offered to help get the usage taken down. I’ve been amazed how good of a job they’ve done! It still pops up from time-to-time, but not very often.

Is any government organization working with you to figure this situation out e.g. shutting down the Twitter account that spread this picture?

No. However, Pixsy has been very helpful and sent DMCA takedown notices on my behalf, and Twitter has been very quick to react appropriately. I don’t believe any of the Twitter feeds have been shut down, but I also haven’t been keeping tabs.


What did you learn about the ISIS propaganda machine when you discovered your appropriated image? Did you engage with anyone from Isis at all?

I didn’t engage with anyone associated with ISIS, but the theft did prompt me to learn more about the ways in which they’ve been very savvy on social media. They are relentless and very sophisticated about spreading their ideology in a way that appeals to potential supporters, especially disenfranchised and marginalized youth.


Were you afraid when you saw the ISIS appropriation?

No, although I’ve had some concerns about the attention making me a bigger target when working in areas with an ISIS presence. I’ll just be extra cautious and hope for the best. It’s really all one can do.

How was your appropriated image distributed by ISIS and what kind of comments by ISIS sympathizers were included with your image?

The photo was originally distributed through Twitter by extremist-linked feeds, but I honestly didn’t pay much attention to the comments attached. As I recall, they were pretty simple and just praising ISIS. A banal Youtube video of kittens has the power to invoke some of the worst comments imaginable, so I learned a long time ago to not internalize any social media commentary…especially when it’s about my work.
What was the response to the image by various members of the Muslim community?

Outrage and anger, even more than I’ve seen in non-Muslim communities. When I first saw the altered photo, I posted it on my personal Facebook feed and asked my Arabic-speaking friends for help translating. One — a Muslim living in Syria — wrote back quickly and confirmed my worst fears about what the photo had been changed into. In our conversation, I made some off-hand comment about having to see it as flattery, and she immediately replied, “WHAT?!?” Especially to her and others in her community, there is no room for irony or ambiguity. What ISIS is doing is just wrong. It is an affront to everything they believe.

I also had an email exchanges with representatives from UNRWA both in Tel Aviv and Gaza City. The photo was based upon a drawing by a girl at one of their schools in Gaza. Both were extremely upset and also had some choice words for ISIS.


What was the original intent of this particular photography project?

As I reference earlier, WAR-TOYS has its origins in a study I shot in 1996 while at Benetton’s creative research center Fabrica. I was invited to participate in an exhibition in Zagreb — the first since the end of the Croatian War of Independence. For the show, I shot a small series that used off-the-shelf toys as cultural artifacts and a way to deconstruct experiences of war. The seeds of the project stuck with me, and over the following years, I became aware of toys being used purposely by art and play therapists in conflict zones. From that, an idea grew: invite these children to art direct my photos of locally found toys. The resulting photos would present their perspectives of war while encompassing the cultural artifact element from the original study. Sounded great. I had no idea what I was in for.

I spent years researching and consulting with expressive therapy experts to develop a safe methodology and approach. Working with traumatized children, there is real potential to cause more harm. It takes a skilled, specially trained professional to recognize warning signs and keep conversations – even those based in art — positive and empowering. It didn’t take long to see that I needed to work with NGOs and their staff to ensure the safety of the children who participated in the project. After all this research and countless other preparations, I felt that I knew what I was doing and why.

Every notion I had — including all of my academic and artistic intentions — went out the window the first time I saw a little girl hunched over a drawing, coloring in pools of blood. In that moment at the Spafford Children’s Center in East Jerusalem, I became something that I never thought a toy photographer could be: an activist artist. There’s no way to work with these children without wanting to scream to the world, “Why are we doing this?!”

Aspects of this thought were always in the project, but I was too busy preparing and producing to really acknowledge them. And even still, after all of my experiences, I keep potentially preachy aspects of myself and the project on a short leash. The series is about articulating children’s experiences of war. They’re just really, really good at showing the utter futility of it all.


Did you feel like the appropriation harmed the original work in anyway?

When I first saw the altered photo, I had a physical reaction, like being kicked in the gut. I was instantly reminded of that moment in East Jerusalem when I began to understand what the project meant. Stealing my work for commercial use is one thing. I’m not happy about it, but I’ve had to get pretty thick-skinned. The ISIS theft is something completely different and far more disturbing. They took a little girl’s very real fear of war and turned it into something promoting extremist beliefs — ones at the core of unspeakable amounts of death and suffering.

The original photo was art directed by a girl at a UNRWA-run school in Gaza. She made a drawing that was filled with tanks, soldiers, and helicopters along with a sky-full of missiles targeting a crying girl. When asked about the drawing, she focused on those two elements — the girl and the missiles.

I searched around Gaza and found a Cinderella keychain to represent the girl and a bag of plastic army men that also had missiles in it. They were photographed in the northern Gaza Strip as concussion waves could be felt from actual missile strikes on the horizon. The resulting photo showed a barrage raining down on Cinderella, her back towards camera.

Someone with ISIS decided that it would be neat to replace the doll with their iconic black flag and copies of the Koran, surrounded by a magical bubble of protection. Copy was added, “Under the Crusader bombing… the Islamic-Caliphate State.”

There’s no way to compare the intention and meaning of the two images.


Did anything good come from the appropriation?

I’ve had some time to reflect on the theft, and while it doesn’t make it feel any better, I’m happy that it’s backfired and brought more attention to these children and their perspectives. That is the point of the project — getting their accounts seen.

What can artist can do to prevent having one’s images appropriated?

In this day and age, there is almost nothing an artist can do to control how their work is used by groups that exist outside of the law. The best one can do is stem any unauthorized usage and stay focused on the original intention of the work.

How did this affect the WAR-TOYS project in any way?

Honestly, aside from taking some extra precautions when I travel, the theft will not affect the project in any way. Despite my very strong personal feelings against ISIS, the project will remain neutral and show war from the perspective of children, no matter which side they’re on. Since I started the project, I’ve worked with Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian, Israeli, and Lebanese children, including some who strongly identify as ISIS. Conflicting as this may be, I wouldn’t hesitate to collaborate with these children again. I don’t hate them, only the organization to which they belong. Their perspectives still matter and are important to understanding the world in which we live.


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