When he was 19, Jonas Bendiksen began a one-year internship at Magnum Photos in London, which proved to be formative for his career as a photographer. After discovering a familial link to Russia, Bendiksen travelled to the region following his stint at Magnum, which led to his first book, Satellites – Photographs from the Fringes of the Former Soviet Union, published in 2006.
His most recent book, The Last Testament, was published last year, and will be exhibited as part of Les Rencontres d’Arles this summer. Bendiksen’s work is also on show as part of Home, a collaboration between Fujifilm and Magnum, which is on display at the Vinyl Factory in London from May 18-27.
Here he talks to us about the highs and lows of his career so far, the importance of having a distinctive story to tell, and how he combines working as a photographer with fatherhood.
First steps into photography I’ve been into photography since I was about 15 when I discovered my Dad had an old camera in the cupboard that I started fiddling with. That started taking up more and more of my time – me and my Dad built a dark room in the bathroom at home. I guess I was drawn in by the magic of that.
I went to Bristol in England for a year, I did a foundation course there. It was at this small college out by the Rolls Royce factory, on the edge of town. I knew that they had this strange deal with Magnum where one of their students every year got to go and have a one-year internship there. So I thought ‘ok, that sounds like something I would want to do’ and I thought I could learn something there and get some experience and at the same time hopefully I could do that. I was really a restless character at that point – so I didn’t see myself going to a big degree course. I was bursting with wanderlust and restlessness.
On learning at Magnum That was what I consider as my education in a way. It was in the days when the archive was a physical thing, so magazines would call Magnum, a researcher would find pictures and send them up to them in envelopes and they would come back. Most of my job was answering the phones and running to the post office and things like that, but one of the other main things that interns were doing was returning the prints back into the library.
For me, that was really my whole education almost, at least it was a great inspiration. I learnt the whole archive by heart and in a way it was an amazing historical treasure trove – every major event of the last 60 years was there. So being able to explore photography through history and also see the photographers coming and going – by osmosis I learnt a lot. For me it was a very crucial and key year in my life.
When I first discovered photography I discovered Magnum soon after. And not just Magnum, but other people working in documentary photography, which is kind of what grabbed me. In the library of my home town in Norway I found some photography books with people like Josef Koudelka, Leonard Freed and Philip Jones Griffiths, and that was just mindboggling to me, really eye-opening. In many ways it was these early discoveries that inspired me to do it myself.
Getting to do his first big project I had made myself a commitment that I wanted to photograph something. During that year I remember when I had evenings free I went to the dog races around London. I did a little project on dog races. I didn’t have too much time to photograph at that time. One of the reasons I wanted to do that internship at Magnum was because I knew that it came with … it was terribly lowly paid, I have to say, but it came with a little grant at the end of it. It wasn’t big – £5,000 or something – but it would let me go do something. So that was what I was hoping to do at the end. So when I was finished at Magnum I basically moved to Siberia.
Unexpected connections to Russia My mother’s American and her family were Jewish migrants from the Ukraine and Russia to New York, pre-World War I. My mother is the daughter of Jewish migrants from that part of the world. When I was 13 years old – I was born in 1977 – something really big happened in my family. On my mother’s side there were the ones that went to America, and the ones who stayed behind, and basically we thought that all the ones who had stayed behind in that part of the world were eliminated in the Holocaust.
Then in 1989 my grandmother got a letter from this branch of the family still living in the then-Soviet Union, which really was an unknown entity. That was a huge earthquake in the family. Contact was made, visits were made to Leningrad by my parents and my grandmother. And it was for me a really mind-opening thing: the Western, the American part of my family were middle-class, academics, psychologists, this kind of thing – all of them. And the Soviet side had this completely parallel life. The patriarch of that branch of the family, who was the one who made contact with my family, was a captain on the Soviet nuclear submarines based in Vladivostok. So I suddenly realised that my whole existence, my family, had all these other branches to it, these parallel lives that had been lived in that part of the world, which we knew so little about. Russia – or the Soviet Union as it was known at that time – borders Norway but still it was completely unknown to us.
Discovering a story in Siberia For me as a 13 year-old, it was like my family was catapulted into the end game of the Cold War. There were these two different sides. So, long story short, that’s where my fascination for Russia and all things Soviet came from, because that happened in our family just as I was seeing the world with grown up eyes for the first time. Then I ended up in Siberia because there’s this town out there in the far east of Siberia, on the Chinese border, which was this territory that Stalin created as a Soviet, Stalinist Zion – it was the place where Stalin wanted to send all the Jews in the Soviet Union, he actually started doing that. And it’s still today called the Jewish Autonomous Region of Russia. So I went to do a story about that place, and what was left of Soviet history and Jewish history there, because it encompassed different parts of my family history somehow. I went to live there for a year.
Free film and photographing ‘blind’ That was my first big project. What was really fascinating about that time is I think it made its mark on how I photograph. I got this grant from Magnum, and then I wrote letters to all the film producers – Kodak and Fuji and stuff like that – begging them for sponsorship of film for this endeavor. And for some reason, god only knows why, Fuji said yes to my request for free film – and they sent me 400 rolls of slide film. Which was wonderful because then I had something to photograph on. I could never have afforded anything like that myself. So I had all this film. Now the one thing I hadn’t thought about when I went there was there was nowhere in a 2,000km radius where you could develop this film. It was my first big project, and I was photographing blind for a year. Which is very different to how the youngsters do it these days, where you get the instant result all the time.
Learning on the job I’m sitting alone in this tiny town in the middle of Siberia, I didn’t know Russian, I didn’t know anything, I didn’t know how to photograph. So I had to learn all those things myself, slowly, slowly. And slide film of course is very sensitive, you have to really know what you’re doing. So I had to somehow imagine what my shots were like all the time, and try to preempt that in my head. Somehow I think that has marked how I photograph because it made me focus a bit more on my interactions with people, the story I had to tell. These things that have become very important to me ever since: the idea of telling a story, the idea of using photography for that purpose, not just for making cool looking pictures.
On the terror of developing the year’s work That was pretty exciting. And of course not every single picture was a work of genius. It was a lot of trial and error. But miraculously enough, there were some decent photographs in there, and I was able to put together a set of pictures that I then sent around to the magazines to see if anyone wanted to publish them. And because this was almost an untold story in the West, the story of this Jewish Stalinist homeland, which was created 20 years before Israel, the Sunday Times magazine in London took the bait. Aidan Sutherland, who was the picture editor there at that time, called back and said he wanted to publish it as the main story of the magazine. For me, that moment – I was still only 20 years old and had improvised my way through everything – it was a huge break, and gave me a proof of concept that, ‘wow, this thing actually works, you can actually do this stuff’. When I got that magazine in my hand the first time, it was a really amazing feeling and an experience that really inspired me to keep going.
Creating his first book I moved to Moscow and started freelancing there, and did stories on spec and tried to sell them to the weekend magazines all over Europe – in Germany, England, France. I did some assignments but did a lot of things on my own too, to sell later. I’ve never been one to wait around for assignments – if I find something really interesting then I want to do it. I was really fascinated by all the strange stories you could uncover there in the former Soviet Union at that time in the late 90s and early 2000s.
I started slowly realising that I had the contours of a bigger body of work – the work that later became Satellites, my first book about the Soviet Union. That was a seven year project – in 2003, 2004 I started realising this was a bigger body of work, all these different, smaller, strange stories I’d been doing in that part of the world. Then I started working more concertedly on that.
Returning to Magnum as a member In 2004, it was suggested by some of the photographers at Magnum that I make an application, and I did, and to my great surprise, it worked. It felt completely surreal to enter into the room with all these people that I had always admired and worshipped as my heroes. Josef Koudelka slapped me on the back, and Philip Jones Griffiths made some snide comment about photographing in colour. That was really an amazing experience. I’ve had some amazing luck. You make your own fortune and all that but you still have luck, and I feel very fortunate.
On having a distinctive story to tell I guess that’s one of the reasons I feel lucky, because I somehow had the fortune early on to do a project about things I cared about and that meant something to me. And the fact that that actually came to something, very concretely, it gave me self-confidence to keep doing that. I think so many young people struggle with exactly that – to find the things that are there, to find what they want to use their photographic skills for. What is their story, what is their mission? I somehow fell into doing exactly that instead of fighting for assignments to make the wheels go round. It gave me the strength to continue, and that’s what people struggle with – it’s finding that personal self-confidence and also to figure out what you want to say. For me photography is essentially just a language. I get interested in photography where the person is trying to communicate something or say something or make me feel something.
Creating The Last Testament I do a lot of different things, I do assignments all the time, I’m a working photographer. But all the personal projects I do are basically just an expression of what I’m interested in these days. And religion has been for years this big thing that has fascinated me endlessly. In the last five years or more, I’ve had this growing urge to use my photography to talk about and explore religion. That is where The Last Testament project came from – it began with me wanting to do something that let me explore religion. Then I found the unique stories. But it started with me wanting to explore faith – you see faith and religion’s influence and power in the world every single day, in every newspaper. And not having grown up with faith myself, it’s been a big mystery to me, but so many people have this thing that I have not had, and understand the world in such a different way to how I understand it.
Like all the other big projects I do, it doesn’t begin with ‘oh that would make a cool picture’, I never have done a project that starts with that statement, it’s always ‘I’m really curious about this thing’.
On combining family life with photography Obviously it’s not easy. But on the other hand I’ve never done anything else in my adult life, this has been the modus operandi my whole life. But of course things have changed a lot – I don’t travel the same way as I used to. I used to be raring to go any place, any time. Now I’m super, super picky – I don’t go unless I really have to or need to. I used to go on six, seven-week trips – that never happens anymore. I’m very rarely gone for more two weeks…. It’s complicated but it comes with its benefits. Okay, I’m gone a lot but I work from home – my studio, all my production and everything is done from home. So when I’m not travelling I’m very much home. So it gives some freedom too, this life.
The ongoing fight of the freelance photographer As an independent photographer, I’m still fighting – fighting for every project, fighting for funding for every personal project, fighting all the time. But after a while you are kind of used to those processes, and you’re not as scared by them. In the beginning these were terrifying things because you didn’t really know if it could work. After 20 years of struggling and fighting and all of it, you know it kind of works out in the end, you have more confidence of that.
Home, an exhibition created by Magnum Photos in collaboration with Fujifilm is at the Vinyl Factory in London from May 18-27, thevinylfactory.com; The Last Testament will be at Les Rencontres d’Arles 2018 from July 2-August 26. The book of the project is published by Aperture/GOST, aperture.org