A still from the teaser for Karim Ben Khelifa’s virtual reality project “The Enemy”—watch it here
Former Conflict Photographer Uses Virtual Reality
to Humanize Conflict
Like oxygen to fire, new generations of soldiers feed longstanding conflicts. It’s unlikely that young people who take up arms in places like Israel and Gaza, El Salvador, Afghanistan and the Congo actively choose to deny the humanity of their enemies. The cultures that raise them, and the history of the conflicts into which they step, cast enemies as “the other,” as people without decency or compassion or hopes and dreams, and it can be easy to avoid digging for alternate views.
“The Enemy,” a virtual reality project by former conflict photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa, aims to reach the next generation of soldiers in seven conflicts around the world and offer them an opportunity to meet their perceived enemies face to face. Ben Khelifa hopes the work will give current and future soldiers a glimpse of the humanity they share with those they fight.
Donning a VR headset, viewers of “The Enemy” stand in a simulated room between two fighters, one from each side of a conflict. The VR technology renders the environment and the soldiers in photorealistic 3D, and allows viewers to walk around the space and interact with the soldiers. PDN had a chance to see a prototype of the work—which is based on interviews with Palestinian soldier Abu Khaled and Israeli soldier Gilad Peled—at the Tribeca Film Festival in May.
“What if the guys that I photographed are actually in the room [with the viewer]? What if they move? What if they breathe?” he wondered. “I thought it would be an interesting idea to explore, and that it would justify the medium.”
As the experience begins, the viewer reads a short introduction about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the wall of a virtual room. Portraits of Abu Khaled and Peled hang on the walls to the left and right of the viewer. Suddenly, the soldiers appear in the room. Peled wears his Israeli military uniform. Abu Khaled wears camouflage fatigues, a mask and the green headband of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The soldiers’ eyes track the viewer, and when the viewer approaches the soldiers, Ben Khelifa’s voice begins asking them each of them a series of five questions. The viewer can choose to go back and forth between the soldiers, or stay with each one until they’ve answered each of the questions.
It was the first time this reporter put on a VR headset. The soldiers are remarkably lifelike. As they answer each of Ben Khelifa’s questions, they make eye contact with and hold the gaze of the viewer. There is something incongruous in the idea of using VR to humanize subjects, but the experience is engrossing and effective. When the soldiers answer the final questions about what they think of violence and where they see themselves in 20 years, their answers are remarkably similar. “That’s where, suddenly, the humanity comes out and you’re like, ‘Guys, you want the same thing,” says Ben Khelifa. “Those are the foot soldiers, so if the foot soldiers realize [their shared humanity], then we can be really efficient” in changing how they think about their counterparts.
“The Enemy” is a new iteration of a concept Ben Khelifa first explored using still portraits he had made of combatants. In 2013, when he first began a fellowship at The M.I.T. Open Documentary Lab, he was invited to demo the Oculus Rift VR headset. He realized virtual reality offered a way to bring his subjects to life. “What if the guys that I photographed are actually in the room [with the viewer]? What if they move? What if they breathe?” he wondered. “I thought it would be an interesting idea to explore, and that it would justify the medium.”
As a photojournalist, Ben Khelifa published frontline conflict photographs in The New York Times, Vanity Fair and TIME, among many other publications. A combination of professional and life circumstances led Ben Khelifa to start looking for other ways to address conflict. There was a time, he says, when he felt the best way to disseminate his work was through the mainstream media. “I reached the most influential audience I could,” he says. “Yet it doesn’t [change] conditions on the ground, so [I thought] maybe I’ve got to change.”
I was … rapt inside ‘The Enemy’—listening so very intently, walking in silence, tiptoeing around energy that could explode at any moment, aware of my body inside the work, and afraid of what I might witness and experience.”—Wendy Levy, Executive Director, NAMAC
As a war reporter, Ben Khelifa felt that soldiers accepted the presence of journalists “not only because they want a witness, but because they believe that witness will eventually effect the situation they are in for the better… They [accept journalists] because they think we can make a difference. Do we? It’s debatable.”
Ben Khelifa secured support for the project from The Open Society Foundations, Tribeca Film Institute, Sundance Institute, the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, the Centre National du Cinéma et de L’Image Animée, and the M.I.T. Open Documentary Lab. The fact that “The Enemy” uses the same concept as Ben Khelifa’s earlier photo project helped him secure funding, he says. “I had all of this documentation, and I think that reassured them a lot.” Being an M.I.T. fellow “reassures a lot of people” as well.
To create the prototype for “The Enemy,” Ben Khelifa interviewed soldiers in Gaza and Tel Aviv using a portable setup that allows a crew of four to transport all of the necessary equipment. There were four Canon EOS 5D Mark II and Mark III cameras set up around the soldiers, who stood on a white seamless background.“Simple lights” lit the set, and a “hacked” Xbox Kinect—a motion-sensing device developed by Microsoft for their Xbox gaming system—captured 3D-images of the soldiers’ movements. Emissive, a French production company, then used all of that data to reconstruct and implement the content in a 3D environment. The crew was able to get everything they needed from each interview in roughly an hour, Ben Khelifa says.
The project is as easy to share as it was to shoot. Setting up the experience requires only a computer table and six sensors on poles placed around a space to track the viewer’s movements. “The end project needs to be portable, because if I want to bring it back [to the conflict zones], I cannot have hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent just to ship the things,” Ben Khelifa says.
With “The Enemy,” Ben Khelifa sees his audience “engaged like they’ve never been before.” Part of this, he says, is that VR is new to a lot of people, so there is a “whoa effect.” But even people with extensive experience with VR have been moved by the work, he says.
Wendy Levy, executive director of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, told PDN in an email that, “In spite of its logistical, emotional, visual, and narrative limitations, I was nonetheless rapt inside ‘The Enemy’—listening so very intently, walking in silence, tiptoeing around energy that could explode at any moment, aware of my body inside the work, and afraid of what I might witness and experience.”
STORYTELLING MATTERS is a new blog series at NAMAC where we will feature original and curated writing and photography about global story culture and innovation in the hopes of facilitating conversation about the ethical and responsible use of creative technologies in community. If you have a story to share for the series, let us know! firstname.lastname@example.org