Video & Filmmaking

Former Conflict Photographer Uses Virtual Reality to Humanize Conflict

August 5, 2015

By Conor Risch

© Karim Ben Khelifa

Filming an interview with Palestinian soldier Abu Khaled in Gaza.

Like oxygen to fire, new generations of soldiers feed longstanding conflicts. Its 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 workwhich is based on interviews with Palestinian soldier Abu Khaled and Israeli soldier Gilad Peledat the Tribeca Film Festival in May. 

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 Khelifas 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 theyve 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 Khelifas 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. Thats where, suddenly, the humanity comes out and youre 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 doesnt [change] conditions on the ground, so [I thought] maybe Ive got to change.

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? Its 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 LImage Animée, and the M.I.T. Open Documentary Lab. The fact that The Enemy uses the same concept as Ben Khelifas 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 Kinecta motion-sensing device developed by Microsoft for their Xbox gaming systemcaptured 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 viewers 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 theyve 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.

William Uricchio, Professor of Comparative Media Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an email that The Enemy stood out to him for several reasons. It confronted my assumptions, first revealing that I am a lot more partial than I assumed. Second, that partiality, that prejudice, was quickly put into place by the simple commonalities that the interviews reveal. But third, proxemics made the experience visceral. Getting up close, having eye contact’…breaking the fourth wall, all created an underlying connection that underscored the words that were spoken.

Perhaps most telling is that participating in the project seems to have shifted the mentalities of the soldiers themselves. Ben Khelifa interviewed Abu Khaled and Peled in May 2014, a month before conflict between Israel and Gaza erupted in June. Ben Khelifa found out through a friend that Peled was in Gaza fighting. Im looking at the body count, wondering if those two guys are among the dead, Ben Khelifa recalls. After the conflict ended, he was able to reach both men and confirm that they and their families were OK. Ben Khelifa recalls that during the conversation with Peled, the Israeli asked: How is Abu Khaled? Ben Khelifa had that moment where you drop your phone, he says.

As Ben Khelifa prepares to interview soldiers in three more conflictslikely in Congo, El Salvador and Afghanistanhe is also speaking with civic organizations that he thinks can help him get the work in front of his target audience. He is asking them, he says, not only what he can do to improve the experience of The Enemy”—things such as changing the VR environment so its appearance is more familiar to viewersbut also what they would need to be able to follow-up with viewers after they see the work. Its great, it can be transformative, but you need something after, he says. You need a follow-up to ensure that viewers who have the ability through the experience to consider another perspective than their own, that they keep that in themselves.

Ben Khelifa is in discussions with Emile Bruneau, a neuroscientist at M.I.T. who studies conflict and empathy, to develop a system for measuring the reactions of viewers so that we know if we are efficient and, if not, why.

The experience of being at M.I.T., where he will spend two more years working at the Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory (ICE Lab) to finish his project, is mind blowing, Ben Khelifa says, as well as motivating. Its been just the right place to break all the rules in my brain. How to integrate science, how to use new technologiesyou meet the people [with expertise in different areas] one to one, and they tell you, Yeah, you can do that,’” so boom: the wall is down.


Eventually viewers will be able to connect with soldiers on opposite sides of seven conflicts, and Ben Khelifa plans to have audience members walk through the conflicts closest to them last. When viewers finally face their own enemy, the cumulative experience will make it hard to deny that you need to listen to him. The context of the war differs, but the mechanism of dehumanizing is the same.


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