The Enemies Project | Nelson Guda

What would you do to understand how people move from places of extreme darkness back into the light?

In 2011 I conceived of a project that I called “Enemies.” I wanted to intimately explore the idea that life actions can be a form of art and to walk the line between art and life. I decided to travel to conflict zones around the world in an attempt to bring people together from opposite sides of current and past conflicts. Embedded in all this was my effort to understand how people move back to the light from places of deepest tragedy.

Over the course of three years, I put myself into some of the darkest places in the world – conflict and post conflict zones in Africa and South Asia. I brought together former enemies, listened to hundreds of horror stories and spent hours on hillsides covered with mass graves. These actions, their influence on me, and my effort to make sense of them are all artworks. I photographed people throughout the project, but the project was about the actions. I kept a running blog and email updates to the project supporters. In the end, the Enemies Project evolved into my efforts to make sense of what I encountered on returning to the U.S.

In the first stage of the Enemies Project I traveled to Kenya and Rwanda and then to South Sudan two months after it became a country. In the second stage I met with Tibetan refugees in India and then spent four months in Kashmir, the Himalayan border land that is split and occupied by India and Pakistan. The stories I heard in these places ranged from tales of desperation and suffering to forgiveness and redemption. I met former enemies who had come together on their own after terrible conflicts; people who had never talked to anyone from the other side until I brought them together; people afraid to be photographed with their “enemies” for fear of reprisal; and people who had too much anger and resentment to consider such a request.

The story of the Enemies Project is complex, because the reality of conflict and peace is very complex. In South Sudan, I met optimistic people who had created bonds across a cultural and political conflict that had raged for decades. Now, the world’s newest country has fallen back into a brutal war among it’s own ethnic groups. In Kashmir, I met people who maintain friendships across religious divides even after decades of occupation and terror. In the end, the project left me optimistic about the beauty that can be found in the world even amongst places of intense darkness.

Treating life as art has real world consequences. In 2012 I returned to the US with a mild case of PTSD, and I began giving talks and creating works. I have always seen the main art of the Enemies Project as the actions themselves – embedding myself in conflict zones and attempting to bring together former enemies. The first work was the action of the project itself, which I blogged about here in stage one and here during stage two. Since returning to the US, I have created chapters of work that range from documentary photography to large scale projection installations to fashion. The works as a whole are meant to intentionally explore the boundary between documentary and expressive art.

– Nelson Guda

Video: “ENEMIES – My Search For Light In Terrible Conflicts,” TEDx San Antonio, 2013