Belgian-Tunisian war correspondent Karim Ben Khelifa and MIT show how VR can be a critical tool for empathy.
“When I became a father, I simply knew I could not keep walking on the front lines,” Khelifa said. “Yet, I was not done trying to understand war.”
The Enemy is Khelifa’s art installation and narrative long-form journalism project, created as his attempt to understand war and to help others understand as well.
“The idea came from being a war correspondent and going from one side to the other,” Khelifa said to the Montreal Gazette. “Between photos and stories I’d do of people, I would have conversations that would reveal their humanity.”
Khelifa was particularly moved by the split between Israel and Palestine, who shared so much in common — including their fear for one another. For Khelifa the villainization of political enemies on both sides was the spark for this art installation and also proof of a deeper shared humanity.
In The Enemy, which is currently on display in Montreal, visitors don VR headsets to view the gallery. As they walk through the gallery, they meet each of “the enemies” — combatants from one of three conflict zones: the Maras in Salvador, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and in Israel and Palestine.
Each combatant was asked the same six questions, like “Who’s your enemy and why?” and “What is peace for you?” and museum-goers are able to ask the virtual recreations the same and see their body language and hear their response. For Khelifa, the striking similarity is how similar, and human, all of their responses really are.
The VR experience was born out of a project Khelifa created with MIT called Portrait of the Enemies. This installation was similar — visitors walked through a gallery and saw the images and portraits of enemy combatants — but this VR experience adds another layer of depth, and thus empathy.
In addition to the physical VR exhibition, Khelifa and the MIT team also collaborated on an AR experience that allows for a similar experience from your smartphone. With the AR app, the experience decides who “the enemy” will be for you, the decision often made for the user based on where they live.
“I’m not bringing you to the top of Mount Everest or to space,” Khelifa said to the Montreal Gazette. “I’m just asking you to meet people and see what happens. It’s a very simple thing. But I discovered it’s extremely complex to do something very simple.”
Image Credit: MIT / H. Erickson