October 25th, 2021 | by Mathieu Gayet

"Whatever the medium, I remain by definition a non-fiction storyteller" - Karim Ben Khelifa (SEVEN GRAMS)

Photojournalist and war correspondent, Karim Ben Khelifa made a transformation in the early 2010s as he found a new way to express himself in the face of contemporary, social and political issues. Turning to new media, and after training at Harvard and then MIT, he proposed one of the first XR LBE experiences with THE ENEMY in 2017, and now he's back with SEVEN GRAMS (also produced by Chloé Jarry x Lucid Realities), an augmented reality experience that questions our relationship to technology - and for which he also narrates.

Far from being totally critical of our digital environment or the programmed obsolescence of our equipment, Karim Ben Khelifa wants to confront us with the obvious questions of our responsibility as consumers. And above all, by making himself a pedagogue with SEVEN GRAMS, he offers some tracks of reflexion and actions - so that our role is not necessarily that of passive citizen.

Version française

Moving from the real to the virtual, from conflict to non-fiction story

K. B. K. - Almost ten years ago I was invited to Harvard to study for a year as a fellow, where I chose the Harvard Business School (HBA) - even though I didn't have more than a B.A. and was 40 years old at the time! But since I like to go where I'm not expected, it was very exciting. And a real experience in its own right, a total learning experience. In these universities, they put you in a situation just like in the theater: we are not reading from the text just to learn. I transposed these methods of engineers and scientists to the artistic world; the scalability to look for, the right keywords to find, the curiosity and strength to have to keep a project. From that, I define myself as a non-fiction storyteller.


K. B. K. - Indeed, I had the feeling that I had done my job as a photojournalist. I had collaborated with most of the world's major publications, reaching their audiences (New York Times, Le Monde, etc.). To be honest, I was quite frustrated that I couldn't do more. What to do about the ongoing conflicts? How do you get readers to really care, to get involved? That's what I found fascinating about new media. We see a lot of engagement on issues like ecology, at the local level. I had to come up with similar ideas to get people interested in war, and the wars of our century.

Creating a story: where to start

K. B. K. - It's all about the point of entry. I have inverted the medium, and the audience, placing the latter at the center of my attention (audience centric). In SEVEN GRAMS, the experience ends with a call to action to the viewer. We built the project around a rather young audience (16 to 23 years old). This is an audience that likes digital experiences, interaction with the questions asked, and engagement. Defining a target audience is an essential criterion, and one that has been confirmed since our previews (Haal, Bayeux, GIFF in Geneva...). We worked with the Sorbonne University on user feedback (but also on the languages to use), and a better understanding of what we were proposing.


Karim Ben Khelifa - SEVEN GRAMS was born during the production of THE ENEMY back in 2015 (initiated with the MIT Open Documentary Lab at the time). My focus was on the source of several conflicts in El Salvador, Palestine and Congo. In the latter country, the role of resources is paramount. So I visited with my assistant several artisanal mines in and around Goma, filming with a 360 camera. While photographing them, I saw the irony of using my smartphone to capture this reality. After THE ENEMY I naturally returned to this subject, and thought about the story I wanted to tell, in a very organic, simple way. Offering an augmented reality experience, with the smartphone, reinforces this idea and the impact on the viewer.

Keeping a critical mind: technology VS technology

K. B. K. - When you're working on such themes, you have to offer users ways to keep talking about them, to communicate around them. I want to listen to the audience to understand how to better build our digital experiences (XR). In this case it was the first viewers who asked us to add a QR code. It is a means of communication favored by certain militant groups during demonstrations or in public spaces (in Germany where there are fewer constraints on public signage): there is a real desire for commitment on their part, which responds to our unfortunately very anxious times. All this is very positive! And it motivates me in my role as a conduit for information.


K. B. K. - The message is not to boycott all digital universes to stop the system, but to understand the stakes to better work in the countries concerned (in Africa, Asia...) with the people. We must improve things for them first and foremost, and bring up the solutions found. We must find healthier channels, imagine local work rules, discuss with the global companies concerned (Samsung, Apple... who have no financial excuses in this case). The injustices we have seen must lead us to put ethics and respect for the people back in the game. I really want to say to the viewer "what can we do?". Faced with programmed obsolescence, for example, there are laws being studied at the European level. There is hope! Citizens must be informed and involved.

K. B. K. - With a project like SEVEN GRAMS, it is necessary first of all to imagine the support on which to work. And the traditional media cannot welcome the approaches that we propose. I first explored AR, then I had to find ideas to "emotionally hook" the spectator with a confrontation with the human. From the testimonies I was able to bring back from the Congo, I logically imagined an animated part with a short film about a Congolese miner - with very natural charcoal techniques, which would allow to convey the violence, the resilience of these stories. And if we go back to the target questions, it works very well!


Creating an experiential space: the contribution of XR

K. B. K. - When I discovered new media with THE ENEMY, I really wanted to tell real life stories - and confront the audience with those realities. For me, journalism should become more experiential: narratives get stronger, readers' interest intensifies. They want stories to be in the space, the physicality. I want to reach the senses, the emotion of the audience. And these remain hypotheses, tests for the creator that I am - I make many mistakes along the way before reaching the end of a project: the issues are complex, the stereotypes easy. And it is of course the case for the subject of SEVEN GRAMS. There is a lot of information in the experience. The interactive and sound design was a real challenge. However, during our tests, the retention of information was very good! For me, the active role of the "passenger" in the story helps a lot: you get involved without really knowing it.


K. B. K. - I use technology, the smartphone, for its good and its evil. We cannot ignore the problems of new technologies, of these large economic consortiums. But solutions exist, and our phones can be part of the solutions to be considered. I am using a mirror effect to expose my problem, without claiming that technology is negative. I did tests in my circle of friends with teenagers who tried SEVEN GRAMS, and then they had more questions about the use of the smartphone, about responsible use - in particular asking to buy their first phone second-hand.


K. B. K. - There has to be an emotional element to any story. But immersive storytelling allows for a real interaction with the user, a connection. I obviously look at the subject I want to address, and make the invisible visible - this is true through my photos, then my XR projects. My next subject is still under study, but I will continue in this direction...


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