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How photographing action figures healed my inner child

Trying to set up Ant-Man on my controller.
Jamal Michel
Trying to set up Ant-Man on my controller.

When I first saw Small Soldiers in 1998, I knew I wanted the life of Gregory Smith's character — sans the murderous, pint-sized action figures that terrorized his neighborhood. He was just a kid who worked at his father's toy store, propping up displays of Commando Elites and Gorgonites in heroic poses. Something about native advertising in the '90s made it impossible to escape the draw of toys.

Cloud
/ Jamal Michel
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Jamal Michel
Cloud

Like all the stuff of our childhood, we're often taught to abandon them, to shove them away in the plastic tubs of our adult subconscious. But the toys and action figures of my youth remain an important part of my adulthood, enabling me to tap into my inner child and navigate unresolved traumas, overlooked passions, and the little things that remind me to be happy.

Toy photography is a robust hobby with a special kind of community, and I first encountered the art in 2016. Social media helped me discover the wildly imaginative work ofMitchel Wu, an LA-based photographer whose portfolio boasted some of the most dynamic images of toys and action figures I'd only seen for the first time. Using both the natural and artificial world around him, Wu arranges a tapestry of engaging subjects in startling detail.

From Ant-Man running atop leaves, to Hot Wheels cars jumping through actual donuts, Wu's work inspired me to explore the world of toy photography deeper. The first step? Understanding how cameras work. My sister was well-versed in which cameras were best and how to set up a subject, so I consulted with her since I couldn't even tell lenses apart.

I started off using blank printer paper taped to my wall and a small table for my earlier work. It was an experiment from the very start — iPhones have a portrait mode feature that I took advantage of but could never understand the way aperture worked. Snapping the first few shots on my old smartphone didn't come out as I hoped, because the lighting didn't complement my subjects. I had to reach out to my sister again.

I scoured eBay for an affordable Canon EOS Rebel T3i SLR camera — a product whose name was only matched by its complicated makeup. There were black knobs, red buttons, a display that popped out and could be flipped, and about a dozen other confusing features I constantly sought help understanding. There was still the issue of lighting, as well as photo editing.

The toy photography community on Instagram was especially helpful during this time. I was able to connect with hobbyists across the globe and foster a connection with people whose passions fueled their art. It also fueled my drive for collecting figures. It wasn't until taking up toy photography that I discovered a market teeming with high-quality — and high-priced (like, really high-priced) — merchandise of some of my favorite characters.

Online storefronts likeSideshow Collectibles andBig Bad Toy Store became my go-to for news on release dates and preorders. One brand in particular,Hot Toys, set the standard for which figures looked and worked best in shoots because all their products were hand-crafted by artists who tried to meet the demands of toy photography.

Miles Morales and Peter Parker
/ Jamal Michel
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Jamal Michel
Miles Morales and Peter Parker

I started to pursue more creative set pieces, going from Miles Morales and Peter Parker playing basketball to Eleven levitating a red truck in front of Mike and Lucas. I wanted to deconstruct scenes and characters in new ways, even using a detailed Michael Jordan figure to capture the ineffable cool that is "His Airness."

Eleven
/ Jamal Michel
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Jamal Michel
Eleven

After learning about which miniature studio lights worked best on darker figures and how to set up the lightbox I'd place them in, I decided to create a storyboard of images that relayed my journey as a Black kid navigating this pop culture landscape. I started with two figures: Rock Lee from the anime Naruto and Miles Morales from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. I placed them in conversation with the head of a doll I made from clay. It was brown with dark hair and largely shaped to emphasize the space it took up.

The small project was my grappling with Black identity in anime shows, comics, and video games — spaces that don't frequently feature us. Whenever online conversations on representation in these areas arise, they often get flooded with racist responses.

Growing up, I didn't have Miles Morales or the same big screen T'Challa we know today. Navigating that culture through the years often felt awkward when communities weren't receptive or inviting. It was a cathartic experience putting the storyboard together, because it was a hobby that I learned from connecting with diverse creators. It reminds me to hold strong to the joys of my youth, no matter how old I get, and it also works to remind me that I belong in those spaces.


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Jamal Michel
Jamal Michel is a freelance writer whose work focuses on video game culture, entertainment and the stories in between them. He is currently a member of the Life Kit and It's Been a Minute teams.