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The Book of Veles
In the heart of Macedonia lies a small town of about 55,000 people named Veles. Taking its name from a pre-Christian Slavic deity who was portrayed as a god of mischief, the town of Veles is now known for its auspicious distinction as a global manufacturing hub of lies.
It was in this town that, in 2016, a community of teenagers began an enterprise of writing fake news articles on websites that circulated globally in support of Donald Trump. Eager to make income from writing content to generate advertising revenue, they honed their skills writing clickbait headlines and sensational, fabricated stories that generated millions of clicks around the world. Because of this, Veles became a small but powerful and ultimately nefarious force in its influence over the American electorate.
It’s this town that Jonas Bendiksen set out to photograph as a pursuit to visualize a place in which writing misinformation became an industry. His work began amidst the Trump presidency when the photographer mulled over the question: “what just happened to facts?” Coupled with the emergence of AI-generated portraits, text bots, and deep-fake videos, Bendiksen’s work stems from deep concerns over the “post-truth” era and just what it means for us as a society to lose truth as a lighthouse to guide us.
Bendiksen’s portrayal of Veles goes beyond standard photographic documentation. The Book of Veles seeks to explore notions of truth and belief in broader terms by mixing documentary photographs with computer-generated portraits, blurring the hazy truth of how facts are depicted in general, and how ideas are depicted specifically. Bendiksen utilized 3-D rendering tools often used in the industries of gaming and film production to convey an imaginary portrayal of the Macedonian teenagers at the root of misinformation, a fitting treatment of visual speculation. On top of this, the photographer used an AI text generator to create “quotes” from these “subjects”, taking part in the same kinds of information wars that his subject matter has become known for.
The depth of The Book of Veles as a body of visual literature is combined through “real” photographs, “fake” portraits and text, but goes even deeper. This body of work contains additional fragments of information that represent an historical, and allegedly fake finding of 40 archeological/religious artifacts claimed to have been discovered by a Russian army, seen in this work as computer-generated “old” photographs with artificial sepia-tones that portray these artifacts as being legitimate.
In a world of technological evolution happening at breakneck speed, it is up to journalists and photographers alike to find forms of storytelling that equal the tautly knotted complexities of the modern world. The issues of economics, politics, representation, and information at play in the story of Veles requires an equally complex set of strategies to unpack the complications of these issues. And Bendiksen’s The Book of Veles aspires to do just this.
The result of this project is an ambiguous tale of morality and truth. The global mechanisms of misinformation is massive in scale, and it’s applications and consequences are nearly impossible to quantify. Lies are blended with truth, media stories become trojan horses with shrouded political weapons to which we are all vulnerable. The filtering of good information from bad is a task that society has traditional entrusted to news outlets but has become a burdensome responsibility that we all must share as individuals; most of us are not up to the task. The Book of Veles reminds us that media messages contain power of influence that we are susceptible to, that we cannot trust our own judgement of truths and falsehoods. What then do we use as a principal shield against misinformation? It's hard to say.
In venturing through the Book of Veles collection on OpenSea, we encounter far more than what is expected of photography. Bendiksen’s strategies of communication purposefully complicate viewer readings. Layer by layer, narratives shift under the audiences’ feet. In both the imagery and metadata, the photographer mixes truths with deceits, and our attempts to find distinctions between the two become exhausted. Coupled with the imagery is a selection of screen captures by a fake social media persona sharing the project on Facebook, claiming to debunk the actual project. The Book of Vales becomes a forgery wrapped in forgery, and spills beyond the frames of the image into the social world.
In a project that delves into the complications of misinformation, Bendikson utilizes those very nefarious strategies to make apparent to audiences that they can and will defeat us. It’s near doubtless that any of us have the attention span and fortitude to navigate the maze of deception that The Book of Veles represents, to parse the real, whatever that might mean now. Perhaps that’s the point. Humanity has gained the capacity to outwit itself, and the worst of such consequences may still lie ahead of us.
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The Book of Veles 009 - Skaters, 2021
The Book of Veles 049 - Courtyard, 2021
The Book of Veles 020 - Police station, 2021
The Book of Veles 008 - The valley, 2021
The Book of Veles 026 - Evening patrol, 2021
The Book of Veles 044 - Bojan, 2021
Jonas Bendiksen is a photographer based in Oslo.
He began his career at the age of 19 as an intern at Magnum’s London office, before leaving for Russia to pursue his own work as a photojournalist. Throughout the several years he spent there, Bendiksen photographed stories from the fringes of the former Soviet Union, a project that was published as the book Satellites (2006). His most recent book The Last Testament from 2017 told the story of seven men who all claimed to be the biblical Messiah returned to earth. His editorial clients include magazines such as National Geographic, Stern, TIME, Newsweek, The Sunday Times Magazine, The Guardian Weekend. On the commercial side, he has done projects for HSBC, Canon, FUJI, BCG, Red Bull and Land Rover. Bendiksen became a nominee of Magnum Photos in 2004 and a member in 2008.
Press + Articles
Do these photos look real to you? Your answer could be cause for concern. And that’s terrifying.
The Washington Post (article)
Beautiful Lies: The Art of the Deep Fake
Los Angeles Review of Books (article)
A True Story About Bogus Photos of People Making Fake News
Wired Magazine (article)
Jonas Bendiksen Takes Photos in Countries That Don't Exist