Masters of tinkering: Karim Ben Khelifa

“When the whole project is complete, my goal is really not to tell you what to think, but for you to think about what is being told to you.”

Award-winning photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa is widely known for his coverage of conflicts in the Middle East. Virtual reality is a whole new zone for the photographer, who had just one VR experience before he started this project.

“Listen, I don’t do virtual reality. I’ve never experienced anything like the day I discovered virtual reality. They put me on the side of a mountain and I was sitting on my chair like: ‘Holy shit!’ Then when I took the helmet off I was like: ‘Fuck, this is tricking my brain’, and I instantly thought: ‘This is very interesting.’ But I didn’t know what to do with it.

Fifteen minutes later I had an idea which I was really keen to go further with. I came up with the idea of portraying two enemies facing each other, looking at each other in photographs, with interviews and the same questions. Then I thought what would happen if they were actually not a photograph on the wall, but a person? What happens when there is body language? What happens to journalism? What happens to my project, what is that creating?”

The enemy VR mount with trackers to track your position in space

A conversation in space
This idea became ‘The Enemy’, a virtual reality production, directed by Ben Khelifa, in which two enemies face each other and the audience stands in the middle. They get confronted with the soldiers’ fears, dreams and motivations to fight. It is an ongoing project that operates on the borders of neuroscience, artificial intelligence and non-fiction storytelling. The Enemy invites the audience to step out of its role of the distant, passive bystander and into the very heart of the conflict. For this first installment you are in Israel. In the near future Ben Khelifa wants to make similar version for Afghanistan, Congo and El Salvador.

“One of the biggest challenges was to think in space. It becomes more like a choreography, or a kind of theatre approach to space. You bring journalism, and purely journalism. I’ve done that photographically, I’ve done interviews and writing which have been published in magazines with that very same concept but here I feel like it is much more effective. It becomes an experience.”

In this short video Karim Ben Khelifa talks about making this first prototype.

The goal
“When the whole project is complete, my goal is really not to tell you what to think, but for you to think about what is being told to yourself. Because your position in between those two fighters is real and factual. But at the same time if you boil down everything they are, in terms of core humanity, they become very similar and that’s what we see here. You don’t really clearly see why they look at each other. Or if they have the same expectations about general things. So I’m trying to take a different approach to a war. Instead of showing a position I’m trying to see what is still common between people and what is common with the core of things we all share, which is humanity.”

Future of The Enemy
“Were trying to expand, to discover, to go further in everything we do and we hope we will have a good distribution for that. For example, we’re integrating a multi-user option. That’s something we’re not ready to present just yet, but at some point you will be walking around with different people in different conflicts. But everything has to be invented. You know, it’s not like there is something like this out there that we can get inspired by.”

Karim Ben Khelifa shows a new approach to his project, demonstrating an augmented version of The Enemy during IDFA DocLab 2015

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