As a kid growing up in Belgium, photographer Karim Ben Khelifa spent all his school vacations in Tunisia, visiting his aunts, uncles and cousins, enjoying family gatherings in his grandparents’ home, going to the beach. But in the last 20 years, he had been unable to return. Family members in Tunisia warned him that his work covering Islamic insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan would make him the target of the government of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, described as a “predator of press freedom” by Reporters without Borders. Because Ben Khelifa, 39, holds a Tunisian as well as a Belgian passport, the government of Tunisia could jail him with impunity.
After the ouster of Ben Ali in January inspired demonstrations across the Middle East, Ben Khelifa says, “I managed to go to Yemen and Libya on assignment for Newsweek, Le Monde and Stern,” he says, but his dream was to return to Tunisia. “This is my country. It’s the one I want to work in more than any other.” In September, at the Visa Pour L’Image festival in Perpignan, he convinced editors at Le Monde to send him to Tunisia during the run-up to the country’s elections on October 23. But he asked for a deal: “If you send me back, I don’t want to cover any news. The work is about me going back to my roots after 20 years. They decided to take a different angle on the story.”