With the release of Pokémon Go in several countries (it’s 26 and counting now), it seems as though the world can’t think much beyond the game right now. It’s rare that a day passes by without us hearing and reading new reports about the game and with every single report, the game that has people going into frenzies of excitement is put in a different light. From people breaking into others’ houses in a quest to catch ‘em all, a young woman discovering a dead body while searching for a Pokéstop to frequenting temples like never before (because it’s apparently where all the Pokémon are), Pokémon Go has caught the fancy of the world in a way we never thought it would.
In less than a month of its release, the game has had over 21 million downloads in the United States alone (it beat Candy Crush. Seriously.) And with the way people are walking miles on an almost daily basis to catch the creatures we all grew up watching, the craze for this virtual game is almost mind-boggling. So much so that we sometimes almost forget what exactly is happening in the real world around us.
A month ago, the newspapers were filled about the migrant crisis in Europe and the Internet was enraged over the plight of the people in war-torn Syria. From global discussions to everyday chitchat between friends, the consensus was that the civil war was plaguing the lives of millions of innocent people. The war continues even today and the citizens continue to live in terror but the rest of the world has moved on; everyone is now talking about where to find a Zubat or how to level up in Pokemon Go.
Artist Khaled Akil however, is using this international attention that the game has been getting to highlight the condition of the inhabitants of the small Middle Eastern country that has been ravaged by the internal war. He superimposes images of Pokémon from the game onto images of the devastated streets of the once-beautiful country.
The results numb the soul. A Vaporeon sits next to a child with his bicycle as he walks down the street that is filled with rubble. A Mega Charizard X snarls standing in a narrow street surrounded by buildings that are close to collapsing. In yet another image, a glum Pikachu sits on debris as a wrecked car burns amidst damaged structures in the background. It’s a hopeless contradiction; the images highlight the distraught environment that is present in the real world as opposed to the fun and laughter that the virtual Pokemon universe has always brought.
We got in touch with Khaled, the 30-year-old mixed media artist and photographer hailing from Aleppo, one of the central points of the conflict, and spoke to him about his latest series, Pokémon Go In Syria (Part 1).
He is an avid follower of news and global trends and said he found an “unnerving contradiction between the playfulness of the Pokémon world and the danger which Syrians and Syrian children live through every day” which inspired him to start this project. He wondered what it was like to hunt Pokémon amidst the rubble and mentioned “how a virtual game attracts more attention than the atrocities committed daily in real-life Syria.”
When asked about what he aimed to achieve through his project, he told The Yellow Sparrow, “This project is not to blame people for not paying attention for Syria at all, it is just to put a spotlight on what is happening in the country.”
It didn’t take him much time to complete the series. He revealed to us, “The idea first came to my mind, then I started my online research to find the photographs I wanted to use, then I did the montage digitally. It took me one night to finish this project, and I posted it on my blog once I finished.”
Akil also expressed the importance of recording life through photography. In today’s world, everyone has a camera in their phones and we are all photographers somehow. “I think we should take advantage of this and document what is happening in the world, not just in our personal life,” he said, “Once you have the idea of how to cover a major issue, you can use the tools in your hands to fulfill your goals.”
Khaled Akil is as motivating as he is motivated to make a change in the way we see things. It’s easy for us to forget the war and the consequences it brings with it when we ourselves are not caught in the web of conflict, when every day is not a question of life and death. But for those who are struggling to survive in war-torn areas, who have no other place to go to, a little something, even if it’s in the form of moral support, can mean the world. And today, with the release of Pokémon Go, it’s these Pocket Monsters who, although have stolen the limelight, are helping the Syrian citizens, even if it’s in their own virtual way.