Karim Ben Khelifa

Humanizing the enemy

Award-winning photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa is widely known for his coverage of the Middle East conflicts, especially the Iraq and Afghan wars, where he covered the insurgent sides. For the past 15 years, Ben Khelifa has been on an increasingly ambitious quest, driven by the questions: What is the point of images of war if they don’t change people’s attitudes towards armed conflicts, violence and the suffering they produce? What is the point if they don’t change anyone’s mind? What is the point if they don’t help create peace?

While a Fellow at the MIT Open Documentary Lab in 2013-15, Ben Khelifa transformed his latest project, The Enemy, from a photo exhibition into a virtual reality installation. This immersive installation uses virtual reality to bring the audience into contact with soldiers from opposite sides of longstanding global conflicts. He has further developed the project as a CAST Visiting Artist, in collaboration with Fox Harrell of the Imagination, Computation and Expression (ICE) Laboratory. Together, they are incorporating concepts from cognitive science and artificial intelligence-based interaction models into the project, with the goal of testing whether a VR installation can engender empathy and humanistic reflection for each side of the story through listening to the soldiers’ testimonies.

In Ben Khelifa’s words, “The Enemy is a project that breaks away from the kinds of images of war the media typically show us. By hearing the voices of those who carry this violence within them, by allowing them to introduce themselves and to share their motives and dreams, the project brings us face to face with these fighters and their points of view, humanizing them in the process. The Enemy is not seeking to provide answers or explanations; on the contrary, we hope to share the experience and provoke discussion. The refusal to see an enemy’s humanity is not so much defined by the limits of empathy as by a lack of imagination—hence, one of the goals of The Enemy project is to expand moral imagination.”

The project deploys two interactive experiences: an installation using virtual reality headsets to create an immersive experience, and a smartphone application using augmented reality to expand the number of participants worldwide. This project has provoked a great deal of interest; it was featured at the TriBeCa Film Festival 2015 and has received press coverage by Time, The New York Times, the BBC and more.

Presented by the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST).

Karim Ben Khelifa has worked in more than 80 countries and territories and has exhibited work on four continents.

In 2012, Ben Khelifa was the Carroll Binder Fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. Ben Khelifa has freelanced for Time, Vanity Fair, Le Monde, Stern, The New York Times Magazine and dozens of other publications. He has been a member of the advisory board of the Observatory for Photojournalism of the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, and is part of the committee that nominates photographers for the World Press Photo Foundation’s prestigious Joop Swart Masterclass. In 2015, the Sundance Institute named Ben Khelifa a Doris Duke New Frontier Fellow.

More at the artist’s website: Karim Ben Khelifa

Past Events

“Virtually There: Documentary Meets Virtual Reality”
Open Documentary Lab Conference and Exhibition
May 6 to 7, 2016

Conversation with Visiting Artist Karim Ben Khelifa and Associate Professor Fox Harrell
Co-sponsored by Art Scholars and Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship
Wednesday, February 24, 2016 / 5:00-6:30pm
Tang Center, E51-335
2 Amherst Street, Cambridge, MA

MIT Open Documentary Lab
“The Enemy” Presentation and Discussion
Tuesday, November 3, 2015 / 2:30-4:00pm
Wiesner Room, E15-207
20 Ames Street, Cambridge, MA


Residency Schedule

“The Enemy” Prototype Demonstration and Research
September 26-October 7, 2016

Class Visits
September 28, 2016
Comparative Media Studies, CMS.628/CMS.828 Advanced Identity Representation

MIT Open Documentary Lab
Tuesday, November 3, 2015 / 2:30-4:00 pm

Presentation of “The Enemy”
Monday, November 9, 2015 / 2-7:00 pm

Class Visits
November 4 & 11, 2015
Comparative Media Studies, .950 Workshop I

Press release: MIT Announces Virtual Reality Project “The Enemy” by Visiting Artist Karim Ben Khelifa, October 31, 2016

The Jerusalem Post: Defining the Enemy

PBS: Tribeca Storyscapes 2015: Experimenting with Immersive Documentaries in that Awkward Headgear Phase

IGN: Meeting the Enemy and Dancing In the Dark At the Tribeca Flim Festival

BBC: Tribeca Film Festival: Exploring Conflict Through Film

New York Times: Going Interactive at Tribeca With Storyscapes

Photo District News: British Journal of Photography

Nieman Reports: Face to Face with the Enemy: Photos from the World’s Wars

Foreign Policy: My Enemy, Myself

Design Boom: The Enemy: Karim Ben Khelifa’s Virtual Reality Exhibition Examines the Motives of War

Fox Harrell, Associate Professor of Digital Media in the Comparative Media Studies (CMS) Program and Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Director of the Imagination, Computation and Expression Laboratory

Imagination, Computation and Expression Laboratory (ICE Lab)

MIT Open Documentary Lab

More about the Residency

Selected Past Projects