The Enemy: When Photojournalism Meets Virtual Reality

by Photo Life

Photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa and his team have created a free augmented-reality app as an immersive documentary experience created from his images and encounters with people involved in three long-lasting conflicts.

Press release from the National Film Board of Canada (NFB)

Starting October 5, The Enemy, the virtual-reality (VR) experience by internationally renowned photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa, will be available worldwide in French and English as an augmented-reality (AR) app on the Apple Store and Google Play, where it can be downloaded for free. Developed by the Montreal-based digital creation studio Dpt. and the National Film Board of Canada, it has a running time of approximately 50 minutes and is one of the very first apps to use ARKit features for iOS 11 and ARCore features for Android, offering a totally new level of augmented reality that allows interaction with the real world like never before.

The Enemy comprises two components: the AR app and the multiuser VR museum installation. This international documentary co-production uses unprecedented, powerful encounters with real combatants from opposing camps to show that both sides are, in fact, more alike than different. The Enemy is co-produced by Camera Lucida Productions, France Télévisions, the NFB, Dpt. and Emissive.

The VR installation component of The Enemy began its international tour with a sold-out world premiere at the Institut du monde arabe in Paris in May and continued on to Tel Aviv in June ahead of its upcoming North American premiere in Boston (Massachusetts Institute of Technology/MIT Museum, from October to December 2017). The Canadian premiere is slated for winter 2018. The Enemy installation received the Rose d’or award in the Virtual Reality category, given by the European Broadcasting Union.

A few quotes about the installation’s world premiere in Paris:
“Karim Ben Khelifa, a war reporter, has invented a new form of journalism.” – RTL, May 17, 2017
“The experience is […] disturbing.” – France 24, May 18, 2017
“A gripping […] immersive documentary.” – Télérama, May 18, 2017
“An intimate experience on the cutting edge of technology, and of very high quality.” – L’usine digitale, June 3, 2017
“This exhibition is highly charged. The experience is breathtaking and the immersion is total.” – Club innovation culture, May 24, 2017

The AR app: making exclusive stories available to everyone
The app will ensure that The Enemy is available to participants around the world. The AR experience allows the public to meet six real combatants from three of the world’s longest-running conflicts. Users who download The Enemy gain privileged and exclusive access to the stories of these combatants. Employing a strategy that’s designed to promote peaceful resolution by connecting with audiences worldwide, The Enemy lays the groundwork for the future of documentary filmmaking and photography. Each combatant offers their personal perspectives on war, in their own words, discussing their motivation for fighting, their struggle, the prospect of freedom, and the future.

Gilad, a reservist in the Israel Defense Forces, and Abu Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine

Democratic Republic of the Congo
Jean de Dieu, from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, and Patient, from the Congolese government armed forces

El Salvador
Amilcar Vladimir, from the Barrio 18 gang, and Jorge Alberto from Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13)

This incredible AR experiences makes users feel as if they were in the very same room as the combatants; as soon as they launch the app, participants are thrust into an immersive video that unfolds around them in 360 degrees. They find themselves mere steps away from the combatants as they speak with the director. His voice alone guides the conversation. During these unique encounters, the only thing separating users from the combatants is their mobile phone. Users can face the combatants, avoid them, or get up close to them and almost touch them… The combatants follow them constantly with their eyes and react to their movements. The experience may be virtual, but the effect of the encounter is very real. The Enemy captures the lives, dreams and hopes of these combatants from opposing camps as accurately as possible—revealing striking similarities between the lives of fighters on opposite sides of each conflict.

To create the app, the NFB joined forces with the Montreal-based digital creation studio Dpt. This partnership allowed both teams to push the envelope in interactive storytelling, creating a moving experience designed to spark reflection and dialogue in Canada and around the world.

Innovative multiuser VR installation appears at venues around the world
In development for over three years, the Enemy VR installation has been featured at some of the world’s most prestigious festivals (Tribeca, IDFA), as well as at MIT. In this VR version, 20 participants per session are given the chance to come face-to-face with six combatants from three long-standing conflict zones: Israel/Palestine, Congo and El Salvador. Participants stand between these enemies, at the point where their gazes intersect. This immersive experience places viewers at the exhilarating crossroads of VR storytelling, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. Each visitor is equipped with a VR headset and PC backpack and is able to move freely within the 300 m2 exhibition space.

For the virtual-reality museum installation, Camera Lucida partnered with Paris-based studio and immersive-technology experts Emissive. The Canadian premiere is slated for winter 2018.

Written and directed by Karim Ben Khelifa

Production team
Chloé Jarry, Camera Lucida, Producer
Antonin Lhôte, Project Manager, France Télévisions Nouvelles Écritures
Louis-Richard Tremblay, Producer, NFB
Fabien Barati, Executive Producer, Emissive
Nicolas S. Roy, Executive Producer and Creative Director, Dpt.

About Karim Ben Khelifa
Karim Ben Khelifa has been a war correspondent for publications such as Le Monde, Stern, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, and Newsweek in a number of war zones—among them, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Kashmir, Lebanon, Iran, North Korea, Libya, and Egypt. He has lived in Yemen, New York, and Paris, and now divides his time between Boston and Berlin. Karim is a member of the advisory board of the Observatory for Photojournalism of the French Ministry of Culture and Communication. He first launched this project with “Portraits of the Enemies,” which debuted at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, before being shown at the 19th annual war correspondents’ gathering at Bayeux. As part of this project, he was a Visiting Artist at the MIT Open Documentary Lab (2013–2015). Since June 2015, he has been a Visiting Scholar at the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program & Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and a Visiting Artist at the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST).

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