x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Across the divide

Feature The photographer Karim Ben Khelifa challenges his viewers to identify with both sides of intractable violent conflicts.


In a new project, the photographer Karim Ben Khelifa challenges his viewers to identify with both sides of intractable violent conflicts. M presents his portraits of Israelis and Palestinians, who explain why they fight.

Karim Ben Khelifa, the son of a Tunisian father and Belgian mother, is an accomplished photographer who, since 9/11, has covered the wars and political conflicts smouldering in the Muslim world. Among other places, Ben Khelifa spent two years in Iraq during the beginning of the occupation, and was embedded with the Taliban in Afghanistan, documenting their resurgence. The 36-year-old's latest project, Portraits of the Enemies, attempts to overturn the conventional assumptions surrounding a number of ongoing ethnic and civil conflicts by asking fighters from the opposing sides three simple questions: who they are; who their enemy is and why they are fighting. By allowing them to explain their motives, he challenges the one-dimensional views held by all sides. The combatants are humanised and their reasons for fighting taken seriously. The travelling exhibition of portraits will feature soldiers and guerrillas fighting one another in Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Colombia and the Congo.

In the following pages, M presents a series of photos from Portraits of the Enemies in which Palestinian resistance fighters and Israeli soldiers and are presented together, both groups explaining why they fight. Of all the world's recent troubles, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict seems to exemplify the fundamental inability of both sides to identify with the other on the level of essential humanity. Though there was outrage at the carnage wreaked by the Israelis in its war on Gaza earlier this year, many in the West feel that Palestinians are fundamentally different - culturally, religiously, racially - from them, while viewing the Israelis as fellow members of western civilisation. Such prejudiced attitudes apply equally to both sides: the same logic is at work when suicide attacks kill Jewish children and are celebrated by people in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.

The causes of war, especially decades-long ethnic conflicts such as this one, are many and complex, determined by grand geopolitical strategies and chains of events stretching back into history. The position taken by observers depends on their own politics, history and geography and can easily obscure the realities of what it is like to be involved in violent conflict, or cause them to turn a blind eye to obvious evils. In this way, Ben Khelifa asks us to question our own assumptions as we question those of the subjects of his images.

The glib dismissal of the humanity of the "enemy" is not so much about the limits of empathy as it is the limits of imagination. The ultimate goal of Ben Khelifa's project is to expand the moral imagination.