Karim Ben Khelifa

2013-15 Open Documentary Lab Fellow
2015-17 CAST Visiting Artist

a deeply affecting experiment in communication”
The New York Times

Fox Harrell and Karim Ben Khelifa discuss their virtual reality project The Enemy, MIT Museum, 2017. Photo: HErickson/MIT.

“Ben Khelifa was…motivated in part by frustration with the limits of war photography and its power to produce real change”
Big Red and Shiny

Participants experience The Enemy at the MIT Museum, 2017. Photo: HErickson/MIT.
Photograph taken during the creation of Karim Ben Khelifa's The Enemy. Photo: Courtesy of Karim Ben Khelifa.
Participants experience The Enemy at the MIT Museum, 2017. Photo: HErickson.
The Enemy multiuser presentation, May 2016. Photo: Katherine Higgins.

Humanizing the enemy

About the Residency

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 Professor Fox Harrell of the Imagination, Computation and Expression (ICE) Laboratory. Together, they incorporated 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).


Past Events

The Enemy at MIT Museum

October 5 – December 31, 2017
MIT Museum
265 Massachusetts Avenue, Building N51
Cambridge, MA 02139

The Enemy
Tuesday, October 31, 2017 / 12:00-1:30pm
MIT Open Documentary Lab
20 Ames Street
Cambridge, MA 02139

Discussion about The Enemy
September 26, 2017 / 6:00-7:00pm
MIT Museum
265 Massachusetts Avenue, Building N51
Cambridge, MA 02139

The Enemy at Tel Aviv International Student Film Festival
June 18-24, 2017
Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel

The Enemy World Premier
May 18-June 14, 2017
Institut du monde arabe, Paris, France

“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
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

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

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

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

Collaborators at MIT

Fox Harrell, Professor of Digital Media and AI 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


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

In the Media

“…motivated in part by frustration with the limits of war photography and its power to produce real change,”

Big Red and Shiny

“a deeply affecting experiment in communication”

The New York Times

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

Wall Street Journal: ‘The Enemy’ Review: Facing Down Conflict

MIT Technology Review: This VR Exhibit Lets You Connect with the Human Side of War

The Sociable: Photojournalist uses VR in war exhibition to ‘expand moral imagination’

WGBH: The Enemy Featured on WGBH Greater Boston

WGBH: The Enemy on WGBH TV Open Studio

WGBH: The Enemy On WGBH Radio Morning Edition

The Tech: Face-to-face with ‘The Enemy’

The Art Newspaper: Speaking with The Enemy: VR Show At MIT Brings People Face-to-Face With Fighters

Campus News: Danielle Olson: Building Empathy Through Computer Science and Art

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

Hackastory: Masters of tinkering: Karim Ben Khelifa

The Jerusalem Post: Israelis Come Face-To-Face With ‘The Enemy’

The Tech: Face-to-face with ‘The Enemy’

The Sherbrooke Times: Head-to-Head With “The Enemy”, A Documentary In Augmented Reality

The Wall Street Journal: Facing Down Conflict