Black smoke blocks out the sun. Protesters, donning surgical masks and hoisting Iraqi flags, scurry off-frame to safety. In the foreground is a man with slippers on his feet and a phone in his hand. He is looking back, seemingly not at the mayhem behind him, but at the Joker. Like Joaquin Phoenix in the recent film, he wears a baggy purple suit, his signature green-dyed hair being tousled by the wind. The Joker is at the centre of the frame, sprinting along with Baghdad's protesters.
The image is captioned: “The Joker exits the cinema to join protesters on the streets of Baghdad.”
The altered image has since gone viral, garnering tens of thousands of likes and reposts. Although Photoshopped, it is realistic enough to leave dozens of people second-guessing its authenticity and assuming a gifted cosplayer has joined protesters in Tahrir Square.
The man behind the image is Ahmed Shwqy, 25, a graphic designer living in Iraq. He decided to use the Joker after noticing a resemblance between Baghdad and the crime-plagued Gotham City, he told The National. "When the protests began in Baghdad, it was very reminiscent of Gotham City. It was dark, there was the frequent sound of gunfire and the sky was filled with black smoke from the burning tyres used to block the roads.
Shwqy's replies, made over the internet, often came a few days late as Iraq was subject to an internet blackout. "We don't have stable internet access here," he wrote in an email.
The college graduate said he had seen the new Joker movie three times before recognising a similarity between the downtrodden aspiring comedian and the Iraqi protester. "Just seeing how a poor and defeated person like Arthur Fleck could transform into the villainous Joker by being systematically ignored and marginalised was enough inspiration." Shwqy said his work, like the movie, did not advocate the transformation but warned against it.
The Joker, as interpreted from Phoenix's portrayal, is not so much a symbol of revolution as he is a representation of the madness that societal neglect and marginalisation can result in. However, his symbolism seemed to resonate with the revolutionary spirit of the Iraqi protests – an ongoing demonstration that began on October 1 in which more than 340 people have been killed and thousands more injured – as people took to the streets calling for an end to government corruption.
Despite Iraq's oil wealth, one in five people lives below the poverty line. Almost 60 per cent of the country's population of 40 million is under the age of 25, and youth unemployment is high.
Another image by Shwqy features a tuk-tuk decorated with the Iraqi flag being driven by silhouetted Batman with a wall of fire as a backdrop. The three-wheeled vehicle, an automated version of the rickshaw, has become a prominent symbol in the Iraqi protests. Tuk-tuk drivers, who once made their living manoeuvring around Baghdad's traffic, have now assumed the role of paramedics taking people from harm. "Glory to the tuk-tuk driver," the caption reads.
“I wanted to pay tribute to the tuk-tuk drivers and I thought Batman was an ideal representation,” says Shwqy. “Unlike other superheroes, Batman is not immortal and has no superpowers. His heroism comes from his will and his courage. I think it’s fair to compare tuk-tuk drivers to him. They risk their lives to keep protesters safe when others don’t.”
For Shwqy, artists have an important role to play in the uprising, and for him, it was through the images of pop culture, which have always had a big influence on his work. "By using the world's most iconic movie characters, I can make my message clear and easy to understand."
However, Shwqy, who was born in Jordan, grew up surrounded by artwork, and is from a family of painters and fine art graduates. His father ran a production agency in Amman, at which Shwqy worked from an early age. "After finishing middle school, I went to study painting at the fine arts institution in Baghdad. I then continued my studies at a college. I only graduated this year," Shwqy said. He now works for an advertising agency in Baghdad.
Though Shwqy was pleased with the amount of support the images have received online, he said the attention didn't come without a fear of persecution.
"[Many artists] were also taken into custody. So I was a bit scared after my designs went viral in Iraq."
But like the photographers, painters and musicians who have joined the protests, for Shwqy it was his way of sending a message.
“They [artists] painted Tahrir Square so that it would look beautiful and send the government a message about their peaceful intentions. Yet, many Iraqis died in trying to give the people a voice.”