I love the work of Jonas Bediksen. He is an extraordinary photographer. In part I love the ideas he has for his projects, but he has a pretty unique angle to him.
Plenty of photographers have brilliant, clever ideas for photo projects – but the execution of their ventures is not necessarily very interesting. Or it is over reliant on the concept itself to make the photographs interesting.
Or vice versa. You can have beautiful composition, beautiful images – but no thread or theme or idea running through your images.
Bendiksen to me brings these two skills together and his work is some of the best contemporary photography in my book.
So today I thought I’d explore Bendiksen’s most recent booked and share some of his advice about photography.
Jonas Bendiksen, “The Last Testament,”
For ‘The Last Testament’ Bendiksen spent time with six men who have publicly claimed to be the biblical Messiah returned. Each are convinced that they are the chosen one, and are here to save the world.
Bendiksen describes his approach to start the project:
“After lots of research to identify the right people, I reached out personally to six men purporting to be the Messiah, and explained that I was fascinated by their story and wanted to tell it. Then I immersed myself deeply into their theology and their view of the world while still trying to just be myself, to be open and curious to what they had to show me.”
What I most love about his approach is that he hasn’t addressed them from a point of ridicule or absurdity. It would have been so easy to set these subjects up look ridiculous. After all, they are making pretty incredible claims.
This openness to accepting the world through other people’s eyes and experiences is transformative to your abilities as a photographer. Not getting caught up in your perception, but allowing space for people’s ideas and views to be expressed.
“I didn’t go into this in a normal journalistic way, confronting the Messiahs with critical questions, or seeking to test their claims. I was much more interested in taking everything I was told and shown at face value, to see what the world looked like from their vantage point.”
Bendiksen approaches these subjects with deep humanity, deep interest and I think you sense that from his photos. It’s an ego-less experience, and one that is being totally curious about the world and people.
“I wanted to touch and feel what a world where Christ has returned would be like.”
To have a profound connection with your subject brings so much to your images. The more you learn about your subject, to understand and to feel life from their perspective, the more connected you will become with what you are trying to capture.
Again, this shows how your feeling about the subject can overwhelm your photograph. Think carefully about what your approach will be, think about how to remove your own perception from the image.
“People sometimes ask me about the humorous bits in the book. This was a knife’s edge that I tried to balance on. Of course there are some funny bits, and things that make people (including me) chuckle. But I’ve tried to not bring too much of my own humour into it, that the funny things come straight from the Messiah’s or communities themselves.”
Compositionally, I love Bendiksen’s use of colour. It is very simple, very striking and beautiful although, of course, simplicity done well is much harder to do than it looks. But it comes through practise and a commitment to bringing stories to life.
“I felt it was important to not really make a photo book per se, but something that brought the Messiahs’ own scripture to people, in their own words. And to make a book that somehow translated the truly magical worlds of these congregations. They see cosmic meaning in everything around them; signs from God and a key role in the endgame of the human narrative.”
Now, given how inspirational I find his work, I looked for some more ideas about what Bendiksen has said about photography.
Here are four great tips for your photo journey.
- Keep it simple with your images
“I guess I’m a fairly simple photographer. There is very little hocus-pocus about what I do” – Jonas Bendiksen
It seems to me Bendiksen spends a lot of time both developing his subject and the ideas for his work. Then he commits to telling the stories that he has discovered. It’s not about fancy camera work or technique. It’s true commitment to storytelling in a very humane way.
- Keep it simple with your camera
“I always say the perfect camera is a simple camera. It’s a small camera. You can remove 90% of all the custom functions and programs of most cameras, and I wouldn’t even notice. I use all cameras on a totally manual setting, always.” Jonas Bendiksen From Home project, Magnum Photos
For me this is what I am also committed to. Why learn all the variations and programs of semi-auto, when you can jump into the simplicity of learning manual? Having total creative freedom, and the ability to focus on subject rather than the camera. (This is my Simple introduction to shooting on manual and this is Why I shoot on manual)
- Photography is a language of its own
“Photography is a language for me. It’s a way to explore the world and make sense of it. And record my experiences of it.” Jonas Bendiksen
We don’t need to use any other language when it comes to our photos; we shouldn’t need to verbally explain them for them to communicate something. It may not be what we intended, but to communicate our experiences, ideas, feelings with our images is enough.
- Be brave
What advice would you give young photographers?
Bendiksen: “Throw yourself off a cliff. Figuratively speaking, I mean. Photography is a language. Think about what you want to use it to talk about. What are you interested in? What questions do you want to ask? Then, go for it, and throw yourself into talking about that topic, using photography. Make a body of work about that.”
The place to start with your photography is what you are fascinated by. Almost anything can make a compelling project. When you stay with a subject, explore it and develop your ideas around it so you come up with something unique.
Links and resources to explore:
- The Last Testament book
- 4-part documentary about the project: https://tv.nrk.no/serie/the-messiah
- More projects from Jonas Bendiksen
- Jonas Bendiksen Instagram