If you would’ve asked me a year ago if I’d ever consider taking pictures of toys has a hobby, I’d say no. In fact, even though I knew people were doing it, I didn’t consider this an option for myself. It’s not like I had friends or knew other individuals with a closet full action figures.
Being a bit of a cinephile, there was a time when I attempted to acquire things from the movies I liked. I accumulated quite a collection over the span of five years. On top of that, I had two cameras and four lenses from a moment long ago when I tried my hand at a form of photography collecting. All of these things were gathering dust.
Due to the anxiety and depression I was experiencing at that time, I couldn’t process the idea of using any of these as tools or resources to have fun. But the darkest moment of my life also brought some of the most clarity I’ve ever experienced. And on that day I began my journey into what has now been a year of toy photography.
Taking pictures of toys wasn’t exactly brand new to me. I sort of played around for fun doing it when my son was a toddler. A couple times at the beach or on my desk at work, I snapped shots here and there just as something in the moment. At work I had a growing assortment of action figures to keep my sanity throughout the day and ultimately get my mind off things. The collection only grew as I continued to fight through my daily work grind and stresses at home.
I had been living in the Bay Area of California for about seven years, coping with what I didn’t realize was anxiety. In 2007, I moved from San Antonio, Texas to live with my girlfriend at the time and attend the San Francisco Academy of Art to pursue Transportation Design. Soon I discovered that it wasn’t the career I’d imagined and dropped out. Years passed, and I kept working at the job I’d been at since 2005, but I wasn’t happy.
Amidst all the trials and tribulations, I witnessed the miracle of our son’s arrival on June 18th, 2011. Even with complications, Andre was born strong and healthy. He was a fighter, and it was a shimmer of hope in a time I felt as if life didn’t have much to offer.
The future in-laws didn’t want anything to do with me and I found myself alone. I made friends in a car enthusiast community, and during that time I bought my first DSLR camera: a Canon Rebel XSi. For a few months I brought it to car shows and hangouts, but eventually the interest fizzled away as the dysfunctional family-to-be kept overwhelming me.
Still feeling like a new dad, it was a daily struggle finding the balance between my work and personal life. Both ends of the spectrum felt like they were eating away at me. On one end, I was feeling overworked and underpaid at a job that kept me from being with my growing boy. At home, I was alone and felt trapped in a lifestyle that seemed to never end, dealing with the in-law drama. I began impulse-buying toys, whether they meant something to me or not.
In the fall of 2016, I found a way out of the madness and took my family with me to Colorado.
Unfortunately the damage had already been done. The nine years of stress and anxiety turned into depression. Deeper rooted issues from my childhood came up to the surface. I found a church community but wasn’t invested. Thanksgiving of 2018 helped me realize that I spent most of my life living for others and not for myself. As I began to fall into this pit of darkness and pure negative thoughts, a memory jolted me.
It was my two-year-old son Andre setting up a play scene as if he was a movie director. A huge light bulb turned on in my head and I realized that during the many great moments with my son, he’d been teaching me something all along about perspective, depth and composition. Although I knew these things as an artist, my mind and judgment had been clouded.
This whole time, my son had been inspiring me and I didn’t realize it. He was an only child, he was faced leaving everything he knew, and he continues to be bullied. But he finds the motivation to push forward no matter what. I immediately rummaged through my closet, pulling out toys, and found one to start photographing.
Here I am a year later, and I’ve become part of the Instagram toy photography community. I’ve met some amazing people and made a couple great friends in the process. I quickly discovered that I wasn’t alone in my drive and background to starting this hobby. Dan Leonard who has the IG handles @tinyepicphotos and @withtoysinmind introduced me to his movement promoting mental health awareness.
This was right up my alley and I was thrilled to be part of it. After winning multiple photo challenges and being featured, I was given the opportunity to be part of Dan’s book, A With Toys In Mind Anthology. It was an honor and privilege to work with him, along with a number of talented artists.
Being able to reach so many readers and individuals dealing with the same issues as myself was not only absolutely beautiful but extremely important. Our society has a stigma regarding talking or mentioning anxiety and/or depression. I’m proud to be part of something that can help anyone realize they’re not alone. I’ve felt that way and still experience anxiety and depression. But these feelings brought me to this hobby and the wonderful community within it.
And now I’m in a book that I can share with my son so that he’ll know that no matter where life’s journey takes him, he’ll never be alone. The irony of it all is that he was my inspiration from the beginning. A year ago, I wouldn’t have fathomed taking pictures of toys as something to help myself or others. Now I wouldn’t put the camera down for anything.
~ Nick Alicea (@inspiredbyandre)