Many artists have suffered the indignity of having their work ripped off by one big company or other. But few have experienced the particular pain, as Brian McCarty has, of having their art illegally appropriated by ISIS.
McCarty found out that ISIS had used one of his images without permission earlier this year while browsing Pixsy, a website that lets photographers track image usage and go after infringement. He was shocked to find an altered version of his photograph “Cinderella” photoshopped with the terrorist group’s flag. He posted the image to his Facebook, and his Arabic-speaking friends confirmed that his image had been turned into an ISIS propaganda poster.
“I’m not happy about [commercial theft], but I’ve had to get pretty thick skinned,” McCarty told Hyperallergic. “The ISIS theft is something completely different and far more disturbing.”
McCarty’s original image was part of a series called WAR-TOYS that the photographer has been working on since 2011. He bases each image on drawings refugee children make about their experience of war during art therapy sessions in West Asian camps, recreating the drawings with toys found in the conflict zones where they are based. “The series is about articulating children’s experiences of war,” he says.
The photograph that ISIS stole was based on a drawing made by a girl in Gaza that shows soldiers, tanks, and missiles closing in on a crying girl. McCarty recreated it in part using a Cinderella keychain and toy missiles he found in Gaza. ISIS’s version replaces the doll with its black flag, which waves above an open Koran protected within a bubble from the onslaught of missiles. The text reads, “”Even if war destroys everything, the Islamic sign and state is protected and will never fall down.”
The irony was all too cruel. “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,” he says.
Most of ISIS’s usage of his image traces to August 2014, when McCarty says it started spreading through extremist-linked Twitter feeds. When he first saw it, he contacted Pixsy founder Daniel Foster, who consulted a friend with a background in international law about what could be done. “They agreed that there were some legal options in international courts, but any victory would be symbolic,” he says. “I could never accept any money from a terrorist organization, even if I used every dime of it to fund art therapy programs for refugees around the world.”
In a blog post on Pixsy, Foster also explained that he was able to successful send off several DMCA takedowns that got the image removed from sites like Twitter and Blogspot. “These sites quickly responded to our requests and removed the photo,” he wrote.
McCarty says the incident hasn’t discouraged him from continuing the series. He plans to return to Beirut soon to collaborate with refugee populations in Lebanon, working through NGO’s like the Kayany Foundation. “It’s the sort of project that once you start, it’s hard to ever finish,” he says. “There is unfortunately no shortage of conflict zones with children caught in the crossfire.”