Journeys with John Cena: A Toy Story

A John Cena action figure dances with a partner in September. Inquirer photographer Charles Fox staged a series of scenes with the Cena action figure in various locations throughout the year as an escape from reality.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
A John Cena action figure dances with a partner in September. Inquirer photographer Charles Fox staged a series of scenes with the Cena action figure in various locations throughout the year as an escape from reality.

Months of covering stories related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests related to the death of George Floyd had taken their toll. As an Inquirer photographer, I recognized the importance of the issues involved and their historical significance, but it also prompted a need to briefly escape reality and recharge.

That need brought me back in touch with an old friend. It just so happened that this friend was a 6-inch-tall strongman. So began a summer and fall of imaginary trips with a John Cena action figure.

The origin of this journey started several years ago on a trip to Maine. After raising three sons and taking plenty of family trips together over the years, I thought my role as the family photographer was well-defined. But on one of the first trips my wife and I took without our sons to Maine, I decided to try something new while I waited for her to finish a yoga class. So I started photographing an action figure in an attempt to humorously busy myself.

Before leaving for the vacation, I picked up what appeared to be a generic wrestling figure after being unable to locate a Spider-Man. I didn’t remember any of my sons playing with this toy, but with its posable joints, I knew it would serve its purpose as a photography subject. My wife later informed me it was John Cena, the pro wrestler and TV star.

Inquirer Staff Photographer Charles Fox at work on a New Year’s Eve-theme photo featuring an action figure of John Cena. Photo by Bryn Fox.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Inquirer Staff Photographer Charles Fox at work on a New Year’s Eve-theme photo featuring an action figure of John Cena. Photo by Bryn Fox.

Following the trip to Maine, I carried on the tradition, exchanging photos with my sons, who opted to use Star Wars stormtroopers and droids as their subjects. Then the novelty wore off. There were many trips for both work and pleasure — Final Fours, Alaska, NBA playoffs, Glacier National Park — where John never made it out of my suitcase.

The story may have ended there if not for the events of the spring and summer of 2020. John and I once again found ourselves reunited.

But a transition had taken place over the years, and the photographs now became about my lifelong love of toys and my childhood attempts to turn fantasy into reality. As a boy, I would search the woods that surrounded our home for materials to build dinosaur lands in cardboard boxes or on tabletops. I would create landscapes for Western characters to ride horseback through, jungles for the characters of Disney’s adaptation of Jungle Book, and outer-space worlds for Mattel’s Major Matt Mason.

It’s not a unique endeavor; every child must have a favorite toy or stuffed animal that he or she dreams of coming to life and the adventures they would go on. It’s why the movie Toy Story always resonated so much with me. I just wanted to be included in the toys’ secret world and their adventures.

While my original photos of John were more impromptu, I knew as a photographer that I needed to raise the level of my photographs to create the movement and details that would bring them to life.

I had thought about switching figures, maybe using a historical person I admired or something with deeper emotional attachment to my sons’ childhoods. But, in the end, John seemed to be the perfect fit. The multi-jointed strongman was not only flexible enough to create different positions, he was flexible in character as well, easily able to go from muscle-bound pugilist to adventure-seeking he-man to fun-loving good-time guy.

Just as many did this year, my family had to change travel plans, like a trip to the national parks of the American Southwest, due to the pandemic. Regular routines and outlets, like playing basketball, became a health risk. Those events and activities have been postponed to a future time.

What began on a whim has turned into a creative outlet for me and now a connection between a father and son. My youngest son, Bryn, 24, has joined the journey, opting for Star Wars and Marvel characters to photograph and, in return, broadening my own subjects.

His employment has been impacted by the pandemic, and he, too, is finding himself unable to travel, experience, or photograph the larger world. Bryn has, like me, gravitated to a smaller, imaginary world — to a childhood not so long ago, in a galaxy far, far inside.

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