Karim Ben Khelifa on VR, empathy and how to deal with the enemy within us

VR and 360 video projects have dominated the festival landscape this year, and small and big players want to catch the train while they can. Similar to the effect of The arrival of a train at La Ciotat (1895), the illusion of “being there” is associated with a wave of enthusiasm. Immersion and empathy are the new keywords, and the hope that this time we have found a technology that will trick our senses even more than the one before, seems to provoke a mini gold rush – or maybe just a high in the Gartner’s Media & Entertainment Hype Cycle.

Stepping out of this euphoria of the senses for a second, and as Mandy Rose has rightly noticed in her recent presentation at i-Docs 2016, “so far, in VR, we are like disembodied angels asked to have empathy for what we see”. I love this quote, because it is true, in VR we are not “viewers” anymore, but we are not “interactors” either so… our role is unclear, we are disembodied observers with turning headsets. And if all we can do is pretend we are there, then Mandy Rose is right in questioning: is feeling enough to change the world?

Some VR projects, like for example The Enemy, by photographer Karim Ben Khelifa are addressing exactly this question. They want to change the world, war in this case, through empathy. Ben Khelifa hopes that making us feel for “the other” can re-programme our mental assumptions, and therefore our future behaviours. The Enemy is about “the other”, the one that we stereotype and we never really dare to get in contact with. “The enemy is always invisible.  When he becomes visible, he ceases to be the enemy” says Ben Khelifa.

Addressing the topic of conflicts, The Enemy physically places us in between two soldiers from opposite sides of a conflict and makes us listen to each one of them explaining why they are fighting –what made them decide to take weapons in order to defend their beliefs, their family, their country, their clan or their faith, as their parents and their forefathers did before them. Our presence as an “in between” becomes crucial. How?

In the current prototype of The Enemy, we can only listen to two fighters: Gilad from the Israel Defense Force and Abu Khaled, a Palestinian combatants from Gaza, but the big vision for The Enemy is much more ambitious.

As I invited Karim Ben Khelifa to speak about The Enemy at WEBDOX (3rd of May, Leuven, Belgium – during IF Lab and the DocVille Festival), I indulged into a little interview about this fascinating project.

Sandra Gaudenzi: You are a renowned news photographer. What attracts you to VR?

Karim Ben Khelifa: As a photographer I started to be very frustrated. I would take photos in Baghdad, and send them for example to Newsweek or Time Magazine. I would sent 40 photos and they would publish 4, if I am lucky. Then these will be seen by the public, the public would put pressure on the Government, the Government would put pressure on another Government. The system is way too long for me to have any kind of impact that I can actually measure.

As a storyteller and journalist, when people walk out of The Enemy and they are touched, I consider I have done my job. But as a human being I haven’t done my job. As a human being I need to go further, I need to understand impact. What is impact for me? And how do I design things in a way that they become impactful? This is why we want to bring The Enemy to the next generation of fighters first rather than in big cities where the media are based.

SG: Are you saying that your audience are the soldiers rather than the politicians?

KBK: Yes, the next generation of fighters. And I think there is an alignment in the technology that I am using and age segments that I am aiming for; 17 to 21 years old soldiers that have not fought yet. The have been brainwashed to some extent in believing that they have an enemy, and this narrative was so powerful that they are stuck in it.

I am trying to have an intervention where they are going to virtually go through conflicts where they are not involved. And that is why I am designing multiple conflicts. I am not trying to solve the war technically I am trying to solve the war philosophically, through experiencing similarities.

I want to tell you a story. I shot this VR prototype in May 2014, not knowing that two months later, in July the war happens. Gilad was called back to Gaza and fought there. Abu khaled was also fighting there; I had no news of the two fighters. They knew each other through me and the project. They also knew they both had two kids, they knew they were both tired of war and stuck in it because their cultures says you have got to go and fight the other.

For a few weeks, I had no news from those fighters. I was on holidays in Southern France and was following the body counts and I was hoping for those two men to get out from there alive. Come August 10th/11th/12th and I finally have Abu Khaled on the phone and he says, “I’m okay. I’m injured but I’m okay. It was really hard. My house is okay, my family is okay, my kids are okay.” He is obviously shaken by weeks of violence.

Two days later, I have Gilad on the phone, he is okay, his family is okay. He was also injured and Gilad said, “And you, how are you doing?” I said, “Gilad this is an irrelevant question, I’m good, thanks for asking” but then I understood that he wanted to ask me another question and he then said, “And how is Abu Khaled?” I was gold smacked, speechless. A combatant asking about the well being of his enemy, this was the intervention I hoped for with this project. And that gives me a lot of hope and shows the potential of such an intervention. Hence, I want to bring The Enemy to the next generation of fighters. It is about being able to listen to and meet someone else you would not been able to if you had stayed on your side of the story.


SG: Could you not have achieved the same by showing fighters a series of videos about what it is like to be on the other side?

KBK: I don’t have the answer but I don’t think so. I have a lot of expectation about Virtual Reality but they need to be tested, and I am learning as I go. One of the reasons has to do with comfort, you watch television in your house, read a paper in a café, listen radio in your car. Consuming journalism is a passive thing. The Enemy is not passive at all, you need to move around, you are not in your living room or car, you are in a peaceful environment I’m creating where a meeting will occur.

SG: Of course, but again… why choosing VR? Why not photography?

KBK: In The Enemy the visitor owns the story because he comes in with his own stereotypes, with his own history, with his own background. My job is to bring in information while not telling you what to think, I would rather suggest you to re-think what has been told to you. That is one of the goals of the project. Re-think of those narratives and how they played on you when thinking about the other.

We make sense of the world through stories but what we remember from the world is through experience. And what if my journalism becomes both, a story and an experience? People need to experience things in order to change. They need to get closer to someone that scares them and by doing this they may shift position. This is what VR can do and other medium cannot do – create a sensory experience.

SG: So what would you like me to think and feel through this experience when you are designing it?

KBK: I want you, when you go out, to re-think what has been told to you and look at the world in a different way. Look at the fact that humanly we are similar yet we are different; you and I we are different beings, different histories… But when it comes to our kids, when it comes to the future, when it comes to well being, when it comes to freedom; we share that and strangely this is what we are fighting for.

SG: Is this not a bit of a stereotype too?

KBK: I am Arab and Belgian so I am a cross border guy but I have been subject and I am still subject every day to stereotypes. Every time I fly to the US they always say at the gates, “Oh we’re going to proceed to random check of passenger Khelifa.” And there is nothing random about me because I always get that; I am subject to stereotypes and I have stereotypes too and I like to be challenged. So I am trying to bring this in a work and I think when we look at Abu Khaled for a lot of people it is scary. It is someone that you think has been designed to harm us and here you walk towards someone and you listen to what someone that normally in real life you would just walk away.

And I think this is a physical thing where you break a barrier and get closer.

SG: Is this where VR as an empathy machine comes on board?

KBK: I don’t have a definition for empathy and I am working with people who are trying to define this. We are trying to understand what kind of empathy we are creating with The Enemy.

Is this a kind of empathy that pushes us to action? Or could it make us aware of things but not make us want the change them?

We cannot speak about empathy without reflecting on impact. But what is impact? I know I want to touch 25,000 fighters with The Enemy. Lets test the results and then we will be able to speak about empathy and its impact. For now we do not know.

SG: So what is the big plan? How are you going to expose those fighters to the project?

KBK: We partnered with organisations that work in reconciliation in Israel, Palestine, in Congo that have access to the audience we want to touch. This is a tool we will give them. And we are working with them to make sure that what we design is actually something they can use. I am going to bring the installation with the organisation and they are going to bring the fighters.

SG: Is this something that is already in place?

KBK: No, no it is a work in progress.

SG: I believe the next iteration of the project will look fundamentally different because you are considering creating a multi-user experience (at the moment you can only do it alone), tell us more…

KBK: Yes we are building a multiuser version so we can scale it up. I want 500 people a day going through it.

SG: All these people at the same time?

KBK:   Not at the same time but in a continuous flow, like in a museum. We have tested it in Paris and it can work. We have created avatars so you and I can walk at the same time without bumping into each other. And those avatars will play another role later in the installation.

We might go in together and the first conflict might be for me Congo and the first conflict for you might be Israel-Palestine. We want to create a personalised experience and we are tracking who you are listening to, how long, what is the distance, where do you look compared to the other?

To be clear, before you enter the room we ask you 15 questions to understand how close you are from the experience of war. Because, for example, if you are close to war you don’t need to be experiencing bombing, you already know what it is. But if you are not there you might need some bombing sounds in the background.

SG: So you are personalising the experience depending on each user?

KBK: Totally. As you are walking it gets more and more personalised to you. The room temperature colour can change, it can be more reassuring, it can be darker. The fighters will be much more responsive. You freeze because it scares you the fighter will say, “Come, come to me.” If you don’t come he is going to take a step towards you. If you step back it is programmed in such a way that he will get closer to you. If you refuse that closeness, and you are going away than that probably means that you are scared. It means you are facing your stereotypes; you are facing a deep fear. This is super important for the system because we are going to use that information.

SG: But in term of script will you still present the user with a set of questions to which the VR fighters are answering?

KBK: It is going to be totally different from the current prototype. At the moment I use the same 25 questions when I interview fighters for the project. It is always the same kind of questions, about humanity and how to reveal the humanity of each of the people I am meeting. What is your first memory of war? What makes your enemy inhuman in your eyes? Do you have nightmares? And at the end I am asking them, “What would you like to say to your enemy? And don’t talk to him like he is not there. Talk to him like I am your enemy. Tell me something”.

I can’t tell you more about our future plot, it must stay a surprise ending, but believe me it will be powerful.

SG: I shall respect the surprise. So now back to you: do you think you will you go back to photography after this VR project?

KBK: Photography the way I did it for magazines is over. I won’t do something I know is inefficient given the prospect of researching a more effective way. I won’t put my life at risk especially now that I have kids. My wife chose me and took me for what I was, but the kids didn’t. So I need to be really, really careful… and I won’t do something I don’t believe in any more.

You can hear Karim Ben Khelifa speak about The Enemy at WEBDOX on the 3rd of May in Leuven, Belgium. I’ll be there, I hope you too.