Whether they look like garish animals or carbon copies of the real thing, can toy guns ever be harmless? What do they take aim at? Daan Wubben’s book Peacekeepers catalogues the full range, and like his other work builds up a narrative by zooming in on the details.  

Image Featured in Peacekeepers, photos: Daan Wubben

Mundane family gatherings can live up to their name, simmer or explode into something very different, but have inspired art in all its forms. For Daan Wubben, one such occasion provided a moment that has led to his first book of photography. He was chatting on the sofa with his parents when his seven-year-old nephew, playing with a realistic-looking toy gun, “shot” at his mother. “When he did that, I thought, ha ha, that’s funny,” said Wubben. It seemed to be all fun and games until the kid took aim at Wubben’s own forehead. He felt unnerved. “When he was shooting it at me… I couldn’t deny that I didn’t like the feeling. It felt like he didn’t understand what that meant [to point a gun at someone].” Over the next several months, he marinated in that feeling while browsing online toy sellers: “I asked myself, okay, what if I would buy a gun for my nephew? Like, what can I find? What if I had my own kid?”  And so began the research for his book, Peacekeepers.

Image Featured in Peacekeepers, photos: Daan Wubben

During this project, he encountered toy guns ranging from a bright orange shark that shoots water out of its mouth to models that are indistinguishable from weapons that are utilized in combat today –complete with perforated plastic silencers and high-capacity magazines. Realistic-looking toy guns are inextricably linked to the economy of war and the United States. Cap guns were introduced to the market at the end of the American Civil War and were manufactured by gun companies looking to find ways to stay afloat. Sales of toy guns based on military weapons have surged after each World War. For a time between the 1940s and 80s in the US, toy manufacturers competed to produce guns that looked closer and closer to the real thing, often basing designs on weapons used by famous characters in Hollywood movies. In recent decades, though, an increase in mass shootings, gun violence, and accidents among minors has caused the US to implement stricter regulations, such as colouring or the requirement of orange caps. Some states like New York have banned the sale of toy guns unless they are rendered in bright colours or transparent materials so that police do not mistake them for the real thing and shoot – the kind of mistake that has resulted in at least 63 police shootings in the State since the mid-90s. In Europe, however, with far less gun deaths than in the US, regulations are less strict. A manufacturer can sell any toy gun as long as it bears the CE marking required for all toys sold within the European Economic Area.

Image Featured in Peacekeepers, photos: Daan Wubben

As an attempt to question the ethics of realistic toy guns in Europe, Wubben’s research bears resemblance to much of his work to date, which deals with real-world data and photographic image. One of his graduation works from Design Academy Eindhoven was a set of images where stones were arranged in public spaces. The stones represented deaths, and created temporary memorials for those who lost their lives fleeing war and persecution into Europe. The other was a small booth in which aerial press photographs of refugee boats were blown up on the wall. Viewers could only look at small sections of the image at a time, encouraging them to see individual stories rather than slapping a label onto a nameless, faceless group. After graduating cum laude in 2017, Wubben started his one-man studio.

Image Featured in Peacekeepers, photos: Daan Wubben

When I asked him why photography is his medium of choice, Wubben, who is dyslexic, told me that growing up in the small Dutch town of Vught, he often encountered obstacles in trying to satiate his curiosity. “It took me a while when I was young to actually understand how much knowledge was out there in the world,” he said. “I love knowledge, but I feel it is not accessible for everybody. Because not everybody is capable of writing or reading an essay or reading a book about something. So much is written in very difficult language, or it’s written in English that people can’t read, or people don’t have the attention span to read. And I’m one of those persons actually, but I’m still like, so eager to learn and I love to learn about different subjects and cultures… and it was not until I [went to see a] Magnum photo exhibition, that I got the possibility to enter those worlds.

Image Featured in Peacekeepers, photos: Daan Wubben

“What I’m trying to do is use photography to create knowledge,” he continues. “And I try to play with [the information in the world] using photography to try to investigate something from a different angle.”

Wubben is immensely attracted to the amount of knowledge that data, in the form of numbers, for example, represents. By zooming out of our smaller, everyday experiences, we can see the data as a whole and the patterns begin to take shape. His Looks Like Crab But Is Not Crab (2020) project, in which he sliced a piece of beach litter into 128 pieces, photographing it as the pieces got smaller and smaller, does just that. The aim was to confront the viewer with the reality that, when you litter, you are not adding just one piece of plastic to the ecosystem, but hundreds, if not thousands of pieces.

Image Featured in Peacekeepers, photos: Daan Wubben (bookmark)

The bookmark reads: “This is where I draw the line.”

But, as a designer working for municipalities, he is usually just assigned to visually translate data that had already been collected. “I think that the data is interesting [by] itself, but when it is shown to the public it doesn’t connect, because it’s mostly intended for internal use. And what you see mostly is all this information. All this text. All these numbers are being shown to the public in newspapers and media, but maybe we have to ask ourselves if all those methods are the right way to show and explain an event.” When all of the authoritative data used to determine laws and communicate to the public is made up of words and numbers, what sort of information gets lost? Who gets left behind in the process?

Image Featured in Peacekeepers, photos: Daan Wubben (front cover)

Peacekeepers is comprised of the images and product names of toy guns that Wubben ordered online, photographed, and arranged in order from least to most realistic looking. The finished work looks derivative of the collection-documentation photobook style of Christien Meindertsma, the Dutch designer well-known for her books such as Checked Baggage (2004) where she photographed every single item confiscated over a one-week period from passengers at an airport. But Peacekeepers takes it a step further by including a neon bookmark that asks users to place it where they see fit - that placement draws a moral conclusion about how realistic a toy gun should be allowed to look.

Peacekeepers is available at daanwubben.com