A virtual experience at MIT explores urgent questions about the nature of war photography, photojournalism, and the purpose of photographs taken during a conflict.
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?
This question is the basis for a remarkable new virtual reality experience, called “The Enemy,” currently on view at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The Enemy” was conceived, designed, and directed by Karim Ben Khelifa, a war correspondent and photographer who has spent the last 20 years traveling through zones of conflict. During this time, Ben Khelifa’s work has been driven by an urgent need to understand the necessity, efficacy, and inevitability of war documentation—and an impulse to discover (or create) potent experiences that can do more to shift external perceptions of distant conflicts. The virtual exhibition at the MIT Museum is his most recent response to this interrogation.
Stepping into the vast room that houses “The Enemy,” you wouldn’t immediately expect that the space contains an innovative new approach to photojournalism. As a visiting artist at the Center for Art, Science and Technology at MIT, Ben Khelifa worked closely with Professor D. Fox Harrell to incorporate elements of cognitive science and artificial intelligence into the virtual reality experience. The aim of the project, says Ben Khelifa, is to test whether empathy and compassion could be triggered by exposure to someone on the opposite side of a conflict.
The exhibition, on the ground floor of the unpretentious MIT Museum in Cambridge, MA, is dimly lit and occupied only by a few people, who hover around the periphery, encased in carapace-like backpacks and bulky headsets. If it wasn’t for the bizarrely-clothed participants wandering through the space, you might wonder if you’re in the right place. The sparse, unassuming environment is a neat foil to the complex technology that defines the visitor’s experience.
Before I entered the exhibition, I was asked to complete a survey that would consider my biases and build an experience of the exhibition based on my responses. “The Enemy” is arranged into three main parts, each centering on a different, ongoing international conflict: the violence between rival gangs in El Salvador, the dispute between the DRC and Rwanda, and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The first question judged my understanding of the conflicts, while the second assessed any partiality to the individual crises I might hold. The final question, though, caught me off guard: “Do you feel that war is a) due to human nature, b) often necessary, c) sometimes necessary, d) rarely necessary, or e) never necessary?” The knowledge that I would soon come face-to-face (as it were) with people who experience war as part of their daily lives made me shift uncomfortably where I stood. For me, war is distant—a concept, a dark abstract. I have no immediate experience with these, or any, conflicts. Who was I to judge the necessity (or lack thereof) of war? Regardless, I made my selection, fumbling slightly as I handed the iPad back to the exhibition guide.
I walked into the vast, carpeted hall, keeping to the edges so as to avoid colliding with any of the other visitors, who were walking—blindly, it seemed—through the space. Stepping into the waiting area, I quickly donned one of the heavy backpacks and pulled a clunky mask down over my eyes. A screen blinked on; my eyes focused and readjusted. I stood up and walked forward.
The virtual space of “The Enemy” is designed to look like a traditional, white-wall gallery. The “floors” are natural wood, and the “gallery” is lit by skylights that flood the place with bright sunlight. Hanging in the middle of the walls on my right and left were large photographic portraits, taken by Ben Khelifa, of the first two combatants—members of rival gangs in El Salvador.
The portraits themselves are striking—they are tightly framed, up-close headshots that focus on the eyes and landscapes of their faces. In many ways, when I was in the simulation, I felt like I was standing in a conventional gallery. And yet, as I stood there soaking up one of the photographic portraits, I heard footsteps. Turning, I witnessed one of the combatants walking through the gallery towards me. He stopped a few feet from my toes. I could see him breathing, and as I moved around him, he followed me with his eyes. This man is Amilcar Vladimir, a member of the gang Barrio 18.
His motions had a bit of the jerky-then-smooth movement that most viewers are accustomed to seeing in cinematic CGI. But as he began to speak, the critical part of my brain faded away. In my headphones, Ben Khelifa’s voice began asking him questions. Amilcar Vladimir paused slightly before responding to each query.
The CGI isn’t perfect (the motions aren’t entirely smooth, and the figures are still somewhat pixelated), and yet each of the combatants has retained some of the individualistic mannerisms that we expect from the people around us—but that older CGI characters usually lack. These moments are deeply moving in their simplicity. At one point during the El Salvador segment, Ben Khelifa asks, “Have you ever killed your enemy?” The man in front of me looks down. He shifts from one foot to the other. His shoulders sink slightly. He doesn’t reply, and yet that “response” is the moment that has stayed with me days after seeing the show.
Ben Khelifa’s experience is extremely effective in communicating, without making any pointed statements, the similarities between the men who have labeled each other “enemy.” Yes, these combatants are fighting for opposing causes—and yet their reasons for fighting are often the same. They’re afraid for their families; they want to stop their enemies from harming their children. In one telling moment, after each man describes why they fight their enemy, Ben Khelifa asks, “Can you tell us about the most joyful moment in your life?” One man replies, “When my daughter as born. When I first held her in my arms.” The other says, “The greatest moment in my life was conceiving my daughter.”
Hearing stories of love or grief or terror from an individual is a powerful experience. As empathetic beings, we respond to expressions of emotion and body language that are not always communicable via still photographs. In “The Enemy,” our imaginations don’t have to stretch as far—instead of conjuring an image of a nebulous, anonymous “Israeli soldier,” we have Gilad, a father of two daughters, in front of us, saying “Even though I’m talking as a fighter and a commander of a combat unit, I have always been driven by a feeling of defense and survival.” Like in a photograph, I can see the ridges between his eyes. Like a video, I can hear his voice. But in “The Enemy,” the combination—plus the ostensible physicality of his being, flesh and blood—makes me think “man” rather than “image.”
The question that catalyzed this project—Ben Khelifa’s debate about images of war and their utility—crystallized thoughts that have been floating around in my head over the past year. What is the value of photographing atrocities? Some images can raise the general public’s awareness of a crisis—the photograph of Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015, comes to mind. But did that photograph actually change anything in the public’s perception—not to mention the course—of the conflict? Is documentation of human suffering ever “effective enough” to warrant the act?
Photojournalists and documentary photographers grapple with this quandary on a daily basis. Oftentimes, they are required to make decisions that are complicated by an editor’s desires or even local law. More often than not, though, photographers need to rely on their own code of ethics and draw their own boundaries when it comes to photographing delicate subjects. Deep consideration of their subject’s humanness, coupled with a keen aesthetic eye, allow the best photographers to produce images that are respectful, private, and yet still pin you in place when you look at them. An excellent recent example of this is a photograph by Alex Majoli, commissioned by The New Yorker, of Blessing, a young girl who was trafficked from Nigeria to Sicily. The portrait of Blessing manages to protect her identity while offering viewers a direct emotional connection to the journey they’re about to absorb.
Creating a compelling image or experience relies on the communication of the human experience; the complication, then, lies in the parallel (but at times conflicting) need to capture that human experience without being intrusive. “The Enemy” fits the bill: Ben Khelifa collaborated with all of these combatants to create the exhibition, and the fighters are directly relaying their experience to the viewer.
With this show, Ben Khelifa is positing that virtual reality (and, by extension, “The Enemy”) can offer its viewers a deeper understanding of the people living through wars and, therefore, force them to question its value. By coupling individual stories with a medium that draws its strength from reproducing the human form (and voice and presence), VR presents a potent method for communicating the lived (almost “tangible”) experience of conflict.
Photographs of conflict (and its aftermath) are not new. The long history of war photography—the fact that there is a “history”—proves that images won’t stop us from waging war, no matter how impactful the photographs. Documentation of war has shifted from black-and-white, to color, to video, and yet regardless of the presentation, violence persists. A new medium, like VR, is not going to change that. Yet the question Ben Khelifa puts forward with this exhibition is whether virtual reality can deepen an outsider’s engagement with the people behind a specific conflict enough that their perspective shifts. If a visitor responded that war is “often necessary” or “sometimes necessary” to the questionnaire at the beginning, could their opinion change after going through this show?
I’m not the model participant for this exercise—I chose “never necessary,” at the outset—so I can’t speak to whether “The Enemy” will oblige visitors to reconsider their stance on war. But regardless of how you come in, “The Enemy” forces a hard reflection on the subject.
This is no small thing. Photography and other documentation of war can be used to hold people responsible for atrocities, to record history, to shift sentiment. It might feel, maddeningly, that we are starting from a blank slate each time, reproving the horror of something that we all know in the abstract. Yet each time is different and each time does matter. Ultimately, journalists and image-makers will make their work. It’s what we choose to do with these stories, whether written, photographed, or virtual, that matters and will determine their final impact.
Editors’ note: “The Enemy” will be on view at the MIT Museum until December 31, 2017.