Jonas Bendiksen, The Book of Veles

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by GOST Books (here). Hardcover with satin silver foil on a fake leather material (220 x 165 mm), 148 pages, with 65 images and 19 reproductions of historical pages. Includes an essay by the artist. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: If asked to credibly assess our own digital literacy, most of us would consider ourselves at least competent, if not quite proficient, at identifying fake news stories and doctored photographs. Whether delivered on social media or in some more mainstream news source, we’d like to think we can spot a ridiculously false claims masquerading as news or pick out the picture with the face of a politician Photoshopped atop someone else’s body. And while this might have been true a decade or more ago, in the years since, the technologies that are being used to manipulate photographs and text (including 3D rendering software programs, artificial intelligence systems, and the cutting edge semiconductors that run them) have become much more powerful, so much so that the fake news machine that employs these tools has resultingly become increasingly sophisticated.

Of course, we have all been fooled at one time or another, whether or not we are willing to admit it (or even know it), and the situation has evolved into a technological arms race between the manipulators and the digital forensic analysts, with the professional image authenticators always one step behind. The problem is now more acute and urgent than ever, mostly because we have reached a point where the average viewer cannot be relied upon to detect convincingly insidious fakes.

Of course, we all delusionally think we are better than average at this kind of discernment, and Jonas Bendiksen’s quietly devious photobook The Book of Veles puts us to the test. Bendiksen is a respected Norwegian photojournalist and member of Magnum Photos, who has spent the past two decades working across the former Soviet Union and the Balkans, among other locations. On the heels of the 2016 Presidential election in the United States, where “fake news” became not only a slogan but a stubbornly menacing reality, there were many news reports about fake news posts being generated in Macedonia, and so Bendiksen made trips to the region (and in particular to the city of Veles) to dig up the story.

The Book of Veles is the result of that effort. An in-depth essay near the beginning of the photobook provides the backstory, which starts with closed factories, unemployment, economic depression, and lost confidence in the region, and ultimately leads to the black market money making industry of fake news, which is driven through a web of individual sites, stories, and Facebook posts and run by a ragtag collection of opportunistic (and largely non-ideological) young people, more professional hackers, and Internet trolls.

Bendiksen’s photographs begin by setting the scene from above, with images of the city enshrouded in smoke and the skies dotted with dark birds. He then moves closer to ground level, taking in the aging apartment blocks, empty factories, narrow streets, and grimly crumbling infrastructure, the only evidence of recent activity coming in the form of ubiquitous satellite dishes, new electrical wiring, and a few too nice sports cars parked in among the other dented wrecks. From the outside, the city looks empty and deserted, lulled into a kind of clandestine silence, with a handful of images punctuated by the feral presence of roaming black bears, apparently in search of food.

Since the fake news industry is a digital endeavor, most of Bendiksen’s portraits feature people working on laptops (in makeshift offices, on beds, in kitchens, and in other places) or on their phones out and about in the city. The detritus of computing (wires, monitors, and other electronic junk) decorates many of these workspaces, but the common visual theme would be mundane practicality. Bendiksen captures a few workers peering out of their windows, and a few others wearing Guy Fawkes masks to protect their identities, and his photojournalistic framing skills come out in wider views of a man warming his hands over a oil barrel fire, another of a couple taking a swim in an abandoned swimming pool (the girl unexpectedly riding a rainbow unicorn floatie), and several others where the seething light from a stairwell, a car’s headlights, or a factory at night adds some color interest to the otherwise drab surroundings. The images come together to paint a picture of ordinary people embracing the underbelly of fake news as a way to pay the bills, in a city with few available options.

Bendiksen then goes further, connecting his story of life in contemporary Veles to an ancient Slavic epic called “The Book of Veles”. Written on wooden planks and gathering together various religious and historical stories going back to pagan times, the sacred book was discovered in 1919 and ultimately translated into English in 1973. Pages from that translation are interspersed throughout Bendiksen’s photobook, and the symbols, stories, and mythologies of the ancient manuscript make surprising appearances in Bendiksen’s pictures – the mythical Bird of Victory links to Bendiksen’s images of birds over the city; ancient runes and marks from the book variously appear as graffiti on bridge underpasses, gold jewelry around the necks of residents, and in the architecture of concrete highway supports; and the god Veles was apparently a shapeshifter who often took the form of a bear.

Bendiksen brings all of these threads together into one tightly designed photobook. The historical “Book of Veles” documents are reproduced on thinner paper stock and interleaved into the flow of imagery, creating a repeated back and forth between past and present. The essay is placed at the beginning for context, and then the images are presented one to a page with plenty of surrounding white space, many with pull quotes that represent the voices of those pictured or blaring titles from the fake news articles. The end papers are drawn from Wikipedia entries on Veles, and the cover has a fake leather feel, with a bear’s paw design on the back. Seen as one integrated artistic statement, Bendiksen’s photobook follows the now popular formula of thoughtfully mixing archival sources with new photographs to tell a lesser known story.

The wrenching twist in all of this is, of course, that much of what Bendiksen has presented in this book is “fake news”. As painstakingly outlined in this interview (here), Bendiksen carefully set his trap, and the best laid traps are laced with just enough truth to be plausibly believable.

There were indeed plenty of news reports about a fake news industry in Macedonia (before and after the 2016 election), and Bendiksen did indeed go to Veles to make photographs of the city. But when he was there, he didn’t actually meet anyone involved with fake news, and the photographs he took didn’t include any people. All of the figures seen in his photographs were digitally added later by the artist, using image manipulation and rendering software.

And when we go back to look at the pictures more closely (now potentially armed with our own shame for not being observant enough), the figures do look rendered and ever so lightly off. (For a similar visual test, consider the photographs made from video game stills by Leonardo Magrelli, as reviewed here.) But Bendiksen didn’t stop with just doctoring the pictures. The elaborate essay that starts the book wasn’t written by him – he fed articles about the Macedonian fake news situation into an AI system, which wrote the essay. The pull quotes that accompany the pictures were generated in the same way – actual quotes were fed into the system, which spit out brand new ones for the pictures. And it turns out the ancient “Book of Veles” was actually a forgery, so all the historical connection-making and symbolic linkages are fabricated. Even the bears were added in, which explains how Bendiksen had gotten luckier than any professional nature photographer in documenting so many wild bears in town.

Bendiksen was, of course, planning to be caught – the whole idea was of the project to show people just how possible (and easy) it has become to make a compellingly false narrative. But in a delicious twist of fate, Bendiksen submitted the work to Visa pour l’Image, a major photojournalism festival, and he was invited to present his project there. And much to his surprise (and likely horror), nobody called him out – he had essentially used his manipulated images to fool an entire festival filled with photojournalism experts. This must have been mind-blowing, and perhaps a bit scary, given that we might assume such professionals should be able to detect such trickery.

Shortly after the festival, he knew the situation was getting out of hand and he had to out himself, so he created a fake Twitter profile and began casting aspersions on the veracity of his own work. The story was eventually picked up (in an indirect proof of how the whole fake news system shares and disseminates information), and then Bendiksen came forward and explained it all.

When we go back through Bendiksen’s photobook, there are of course clues left everywhere. What photographer thanks “Open AI, Daz, Blender, and NVIDIA” in their dedication? The essay is clearly marked as written by GPT2, the open-source AI system. The Wikipedia articles directly call out the ancient Book of Veles as a forgery. The bear atop a needlepoint winter scene is obviously pixelated. And those are just the most glaringly out of place details. Bendiksen’s digital handiwork is plenty good, but the collective “we” should have been able to put all these pieces together and detect the many discrepancies. And yet, that didn’t happen, thereby amplifying the dangerous point of this exercise.

While I am sure there are many angry and embarrassed photojournalists who feel burned by Bendiksen’s insolent trap, his smartly planned and executed deception lays bare the challenges inherent in declaring the truth in contemporary photographs, especially when those “truths” are wrapped with the reputations of established institutions and respected participants like Bendiksen himself. This photobook arrives like an astringent slap in the face, and hopefully will be durably remembered as more than just a clever gimmick; few photobooks from 2021 should get us thinking and talking as much as this one, even when we overtly acknowledge that the included photographs are fraudulent. The logic says that if Bendiksen can fool us so thoroughly, there will be many others who will try, and succeed, as well. We’ve been in need of a bracing and cautionary wake up call about the growing power of manipulated imagery for a while now, and The Book of Veles has successfully delivered that message. What we do about that sobering reality, now that Bendiksen has so powerfully forced us to face it, is far less clear. He’s humbled enough people to get some useful conversations started, so hopefully that uncomfortable awkwardness can lead to some good, perhaps even the beginnings of recognition and change.

Collector’s POV: Jonas Bendiksen is a member of Magnum Photos (here). His work has been only intermittently available in the secondary markets in the past decade, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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