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The joke's on who?

Firas Alkhateeb, the man behind the most controversial image of Barack Obama, is an unlikely poster boy for opponents of the US president.
A poster depicting Barack Obama as The Joker, as seen in the Batman movie The Dark Knight pasted on a highway pillar in Los Angeles.
A poster depicting Barack Obama as The Joker, as seen in the Batman movie The Dark Knight pasted on a highway pillar in Los Angeles.

One month ago, Firas Alkhateeb was like any other university student: worrying about his studies, having enough money to stay at school and weighing up his options come graduation. But in the last four weeks, the 20-year-old Palestinian American has been linked to a grassroots campaign to discredit the president and become an unlikely poster boy for a number of issues. On August 3, Alkhateeb stared fixedly at a newspaper, knowing that his life might never be the same again. Looking back at him was an image that he had created on a cold January evening - that of then president elect Barack Obama, transformed to resemble The Joker, the arch-nemesis of the comic-book hero Batman.

Except the Photoshopped image, which had been posted on walls, bridges and telegraph poles across Los Angeles, was now different. Gone was the famous Time magazine red masthead and border from the picture Alkhateeb had uploaded onto his Flickr site. It now simply carried the word "socialism". With its scarred cheeks and eerie pale flesh, the face conjured visions of crime and urban chaos. The alterations were made by a still-anonymous artist or group, presumed to be opponents of the US president and his proposed health care reform plans. They are the same people who are believed to have carried out the clandestine poster campaign in LA.

For almost two weeks, as the image was reproduced in newspapers and on websites around the world, Alkhateeb stayed quiet. The history student told only close friends and family that he had been behind the original picture and sought legal advice from his university, the University of Illinois. "I didn't really want my name out there until I knew there would be no legal repercussions," he says, sounding particularly relaxed for someone now at the centre of an international media scrum.

"I got a few hate e-mails saying what I did to the president was reprehensible and that I should be ashamed. At the same time, I'm assuming that those people were all for it when similar images of George W Bush were made," he says. "There was fan mail too, mostly from conservatives who don't like Obama." The great irony is that the most infamous anti-Obama image of the presidency did not come from the mind of a hardened critic, but from someone who was relatively indifferent to the new head of state. When Alkhateeb was unmasked in a Los Angeles Times piece, many were surprised by what they found. The artist behind the picture was not only a resident of Obama's hometown, Chicago, but a lukewarm supporter of the politician Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat who stood unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Followers of Obama were also made to backtrack, when the image they had branded as "shocking" and "racist" was revealed to have been created by a member of a minority community. "I had been practising with Photoshop for the last year just as a hobby, for fun and to see what I could do," he explains. "I did it as a challenge - to make a good resemblance to the Heath Ledger Joker. "I didn't make it because I thought there were similarities between the two characters. I made it as a counter to the dozens of pro-Obama images that were out there, particularly after the election," says Alkhateeb. "He was being portrayed as a great president before he had even taken the oath of office."

With the US president currently enjoying unprecedented global popularity, and Ledger's Joker received as one of modern cinema's greatest villains, a pairing of the two was simply too zeitgeisty for the media to ignore. It is almost difficult to believe that it was a Photoshop hobbyist who dreamt up the portrait, not a newspaper cartoonist or professional political mudslinger. "I think it's really powerful," says Alkhateeb. "When I saw The Dark Knight last summer, the first scene where The Joker takes off his mask and you see the make-up, was really striking. I was thinking as I was making the picture that it elicits a lot of emotions in people."

But several months after creating the image, Alkhateeb realised that someone else had recognised its power - and begun exploiting it. "I was in shock and disbelief when I first read about the picture on the streets of Los Angeles. I couldn't believe my image had made it that far," he says. But far from being angered that the picture had been downloaded and altered without his consent, Alkhateeb felt a sense of pride.

"I was honoured that someone thought it was good enough to reproduce," he says. Two weeks later, he received an e-mail from a Los Angeles Times journalist, on the hunt for the picture's creator. He tracked-down Alkhateeb simply by searching for keywords on the photo-sharing website Flickr. "The day after he published the article, the phone was off the hook at home. I was getting calls from ABC, CNN and other people all over the world. It's been pretty overwhelming and pretty interesting," he says. "Nothing like this has ever happened to me before, so it was pretty exciting."

Many reports focused on Alkhateeb's relatively apolitical motives for creating the picture, his interest in Kucinich and the fact that he hadn't voted in last October's presidential election. But Alkhateeb says the reason he gave for not voting was ignored in many reports. "I didn't vote as a political protest against the electoral system," he says. "I live in Obama's home state and there was zero chance that he wasn't going to win Illinois, so my vote wouldn't have counted for anything. The election was decided by a handful of states which make up 10 per cent of the American population, which isn't democracy if you ask me."

Alkhateeb is undoubtedly intelligent, but for someone who was jointly responsible for the year's most politically provocative image, he can at times appear slightly naive. He claimed in our interview that the gains of the US civil-rights movement in the 1960s mean that "there isn't institutional racism in this country any more". Also that "socialism is an idea that's time has come and passed. It's basically like calling someone a loyalist to the British crown".

That Alkhateeb has created a striking piece of political satire is unquestionable. The fact that he managed to do it without realising for so many months stands as evidence that he is unlikely to ever manage it again. If any credo best describes Alkhateeb, it's not socialism, conservatism or even apathy? it's scepticism. He says he chose to speak to the media, rather than keep quiet, because he wanted to tell his side of the story: "I didn't intend for this to be a racist image or to even really criticise the president. I'm not trying to hurt anybody with it."

In fact, the pairing of Obama and The Joker almost happened by mistake. During his many long hours tinkering with Photoshop, Alkhateeb had begun using online tutorials which show users how to alter images to achieve a certain end. When he began the Obama Joker picture, he was actually following steps to create a version on the less-gruesome Joker played by Jack Nicholson, in the 1989 Batman film. "I used that tutorial on another image," he says. "After I learnt how to recreate the 1989 version, I decided to see if I could make someone look like the new Joker."

He then searched for a portrait of Obama, ideally facing forward and without a large amount of shadow. Eventually he decided on a rather emotionless shot from an October 2006 Time magazine cover, carrying the headline: "Why Barack Obama Could Be The Next President". Alkhateeb feels uneasy being compared to the likes of Banksy or other street-level satirists. Instead, he counts his greatest influence as Shepard Fairey, the artist behind the Obama Hope poster. Reprinted the world over, the portrait has acquired the kind of instant recognition that Jim Fitzpatrick's Che Guevara picture earned, in a fraction of the time. Alkhateeb says his Joker image serves as a powerful counter to Fairey's unconditionally optimistic picture.

As well as inadvertently helping to create a powerful piece of propaganda for the American Right, Alkhateeb has also become a rallying point for the freedom-of-speech movement, which now spends much of its time wrangling over disputes originating from the internet. After going public as the creator of the image and mentioning Flickr in several interviews, the image was suddenly removed by the site.

"They e-mailed me and said that the picture was copyright infringement and that they received a notice to take it down. I can only assume that the notice was from Time magazine, but they didn't tell me," he says. Alkhateeb has now filed a counterclaim and plans to upload the picture again. "As I understand it, you can use a copyrighted image for political parody and it's not a copyright infringement," he says. "I've been seeing a lot of articles online about censorship and a lot of people arguing my case."

Although Alkhateeb plans to continue experimenting with Photoshop, he thinks a career as an artist or satirist is unlikely. "My number-one priority is to graduate from school in history and I want to become a history teacher. But I'm continuing with Photoshop and photography. I want that to still be an option for me." Those waiting to see Hilary Clinton as Catwoman will have to wait, Alkhateeb has all but ruled out creating any further heroes or villains out of America's political figures.

"The moment has passed," he says. "I don't think I could do this again if I tried. It's like lightning in a bottle. Everything happened at the right time and the right place and just caught on fire."

Updated: September 1, 2009 04:00 AM