Why I’m a Toy Photographer: My Son Is My Inspiration

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. 

Assassin-Predator by @inspiredbyandre

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.

Batman-Facehugger by @inspiredbyandre

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.

Alien_-Resurrection-Xenomorph-Warrior- by @inspiredbyandre

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.

Demogorgon-2 by @inspiredbyandre

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. 

Prototype-White-Boba-Fett- by @inspiredbyandre

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. 

Irom-Man-3_-Starboost by @inspiredbyandre

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.

Jango-Fett- by @inspiredbyandre

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.

Godzilla by @inspiredbyandre

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.

Celtic-Predator by @inspiredbyandre

~ Nick Alicea (@inspiredbyandre)

12 Comments

  1. Janan

    Nick, your portrait images are always beautifully lit and the details pop nicely. Thanks for sharing your story so honestly and vulnerably. It really moved me and it’s great to hear how toy photography and the community have played a role in helping you in the struggles of life. Your son certainly has someone inspiring to look up to.

    • Nick Alicea

      Janan, thank you for always being so supportive! I really appreciate your kind words. Thanks for always taking the time to view my work and offer such great feedback. I’m forever grateful for this community and artists such as yourself that I’ve had the privilege to meet.

  2. Great article!!

    It never fails to amaze me how many of us come to this community from a background of anxiety, stress and depression. Your story very nearly mirrors mine. I came to toy photography after a spell of depression following my now wife’s diagnosis of cervical cancer.

    The thought of going out and photographing my usual landscapes and coastal scenes held less appeal and I found myself turning the camera onto things at home as an escape. Thankfully my wife realised something wasn’t right and bought me a few minifigs – 4 years later, the collection has somewhat grown.

    Always good to know there are people out there who have been through similar experiences and have taken similar positive paths.

  3. Nick, thank you for sharing your story with us! It’s amazing the variety of backgrounds we all have, and yet the common thread is the enjoyment and “plastic therapy” we get from toy photography. These are some stellar photos, and I love seeing them collected together like this.

    • Nick Alicea

      You are awesome! Thank you for reaching out, being so kind and supportive! I’m a fan of your work and appreciate your feedback! This was a fantastic experience and I look forward to future opportunities to share more about my journey, drive and inspiration. I need to get a couple hats and shirts with that Plastic Therapy printed on them lol! Makes so much sense!

  4. Nick Alicea

    Hello Dan,
    I greatly appreciate you sharing some of your own story. I agree too that many of the artists in this community share some of the similarities in what brings us to this hobby. You’re wife sounds like an amazing fighter and awesome friend (so cool she got you minifigs!). I’ve gotten a taste of outside photography and it’s delightful! There’s something about the natural light and surroundings that no mechanical lighting or man made diorama can compare to. Thank you for response and taking the time to read a bit about me.

  5. I wasn’t joking when I once commented on your post that I should change my handle to @inspiredbyinspiredbyandre ! thanks for sharing your story, Nick, it’s people like you that make this tot photography journey and community something more than just another photo-show-off thing. Keep being inspired by Andre, and keep inspiring us all!

    • Nick Alicea

      Thank you Kevin! You’re awesome man and I really appreciate that! Just like many things in life, toxicity can come from too much of anything. I almost crashed and burned a month ago, forcing myself to take some time off. It helped a lot and reminded me why I was doing this. In my opinion, anyone can get lost in the crave for feedback and critiques. I never did this for the likes, but for the growth because I bad zero knowledge about the hobby or photography. Reading the comments on some of my photos helped my evolution, but also made me a slave. You gotta do this because you want to and it makes you happy, not to please the masses.

  6. This is really moving story Nick. Thank You. I’m glad You found peace in toy photography and I share the experience of being inspired by children. I admire your style and photos. I take pictures of toys for four years and I’m far from reaching your level.

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