Jonas Bendiksen, The Book of Veles

JTF (only facts): Published in 2021 by GOST Books (here). Hardback, glossy silver paper on faux leather (220 x 165 mm), 148 pages, with 65 photos and 19 historical page copies. Includes an article by the artist. (Cover and post the shots below.)

Comments/Context: If you were asked to credibly assess our digital literacy, most of us would probably consider ourselves at least competent, if not fully skilled, at identifying fake news stories and fake images. Whether delivered on social media or in some of the more popular news sources, we like to think we can spot ridiculously false claims masquerading as news or snap the photo with a politician’s face Photoshopped over someone else’s body. And while that may have been true a decade or more ago, in the years since, the technologies used to process images and text (including 3D rendering software, artificial intelligence systems, and the latest semiconductors that power them) have become more powerful, to the point that the news machine The fakes that use these tools are as a result becoming more and more sophisticated.

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

Of course, we all delusively think we’re better than average at this sort of discrimination, and Jonas Bendixen’s dumb photo book quietly Phyllis book It puts us to the test. Bendiksen is a respected Norwegian photojournalist and member of Magnum Photos, who has spent the past two decades working throughout the former Soviet Union and the Balkans, among other locations. In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election in the United States, where “fake news” became not only a slogan but a stubbornly threatened reality, there were many news reports about fake news publications being created in Macedonia, so Bendixen made trips to the Republic of Macedonia. area (and in particular for the city of Veles) to explore the story.

Phyllis book It is the result of this effort. An in-depth article near the beginning of the book provides the backstory, which begins with closed factories, unemployment, economic depression and loss of confidence in the region, and eventually leads to money making in the black market for fake news, which is driven by a network of single websites, stories and Facebook posts and run by a scattered group From the opportunistic (and largely non-ideological) youngsters to the more professional hackers and online trolls.

Bendixen’s photographs begin by setting the scene from above, with images of the smoky city and the sky strewn with dark birds. Then it approaches ground level, taking in the old apartment buildings, empty factories, narrow streets, and crumbling infrastructure, the only evidence of recent activity that comes in the form of ubiquitous satellite dishes, new electric wiring, and a few very, very nice parked sports cars. Among other dented debris. From the outside, the city appears empty and deserted, quiet to a sort of secret silence, with a handful of photos peppered with the feral presence of roaming black bears, seemingly in search of food.

Because the fake news industry is a digital endeavor, most Bendiksen photos depict people working on laptops (in temporary offices, on beds, in kitchens, and elsewhere) or on their phones out and about town. Computing junk (wires, monitors, and other electronic junk) adorns many of these workspaces, but a common visual theme will be normal practicality. Bendixen captures a few workers looking out their windows, a few others wearing Guy Fawkes masks to protect their identities, and his photojournalistic skills stand out in broader views of a man warming his hands over an oil barrel fire, and another of a couple swimming in a deserted pool (the girl who rides erratically Expect a rainbow unicorn flute), and many other things as sunken light from a stairwell, car headlights, or factory at night add some color interest to the dark surroundings. The images come together to paint a picture of ordinary people embracing the essence of fake news as a way to pay the bills, in a city with few options available.

Then Bendixen goes further, connecting his life story in contemporary Veles with an ancient Slavic epic called the “Book of Veles”. Written on wood panels and bringing together many religious and historical stories dating back to pagan times, the Bible was discovered in 1919 and eventually translated into English in 1973. Pages from that translation are peppered throughout the Bendixen Illustrated Book, allegories and stories appear surprisingly ancient manuscript legends in Bendixen images – the mythical bird of victory links with Bendixen’s images of birds over the city; Ancient runes and signs from the book appear variously in the form of inscriptions on the lower walls of bridges, gold jewelry around the necks of residents, and in the structure of concrete highway supports; The god Veles appears to have been a mutant, often taking the form of a bear.

Bendiksen brings all these leads together in one tightly designed picture book. Historic Phyllis Book documents are transcribed onto thinner paper stock and intertwined in a flow of images, creating a back-and-forth between past and present. The article is initially laid out for context, then images are presented one to a page with plenty of surrounding white space, many with pull quotes representing the voices of those being photographed or loud headlines from fake news articles. The end papers are derived from Wikipedia entries on Phyllis, and the wrap has a faux leather feel, with a bear paw design on the back. As an integrated artistic manifesto, Bendiksen’s illustrated book follows the now popular formula of carefully blending archival sources with new images to tell a lesser-known story.

The painful twist in all of this, of course, is that much of what Bendixen presents in this book is “fake news.” As painstakingly explained in this interview (here), Bendiksen carefully crafted his trap, and the best traps were supplied with enough truth to be reasonably believable.

There was already a lot of news reporting about the fake news industry in Macedonia (before and after the 2016 elections), and Bendixen had already gone to Veles to take pictures of the city. But when he was there, he never actually met anyone involved in the false news, and the photos he took didn’t include anyone. All the shapes seen in his photographs were later digitally added by the artist, using image manipulation and rendering software.

And when we go back to looking at the photos more closely (we’re probably now armed with our shame for not sticking enough), the numbers appear to be on display and very light. (For a similar visual test, consider images taken from video game footage by Leonardo Magrelli, as reviewed here.) But Bendiksen hasn’t stopped manipulating the images. He didn’t write the detailed article the book started with – he fed articles about the state of Macedonian fake news into an artificial intelligence system, which wrote the article. Cloud quotes that accompany images are created in the same way – actual quotes are entered into the system, which spit out new image brands. And it turns out that the ancient “Book of Phyllis” was in fact a fake, so all historical and symbolic links are fabricated. Even bears have been added, which explains how Bendiksen has become more fortunate than any professional nature photographer in documenting the city’s many wild bears.

Bendiksen, of course, was planning to catch it – the whole idea of ​​the project was to show how convincingly it is possible (and easy) to make a false narrative. But in a twist of fateful fate, Bendiksen submitted the work to Visa pour l’Image, a major festival of photojournalism, and was invited to present his project there. Much to his surprise (and probably horrified), no one told him – he used his manipulated photos to fool an entire festival full of photojournalists. This must be amazing, and maybe a little scary, given that we might assume that such professionals should be able to spot such deceptions.

Shortly after the festival, he knew the situation was getting out of hand, and he had to get out of hand, so he created a fake Twitter profile and started muddling the authenticity of his business. The story was eventually captured (in indirect evidence of how the fake news system shared and disseminated information), then Bendiksen came forward and explained it in full.

When we go back through Bendiksen’s photobook, there are of course clues left everywhere. What photographer would thank “Open AI, Daz, Blender, and NVIDIA” for their dedication? The article is clearly marked as written by GPT2, an open source AI system. Wikipedia articles directly describe Phyllis’ old book as a forgery. The bear on top is clearly a dotted winter scene. And these are just the most obvious out of place details. Bendiksen’s digital craftsmanship is very good, but our collective “us” should have been able to put all these pieces together and discover the many contradictions. However, that didn’t happen, amplifying the dangerous point in this exercise.

While I am sure there are many angry and embarrassed photojournalists out there who feel burned by Bendixen’s shameless trap, his cleverly planned and executed deception exposes the challenges inherent in declaring the truth in contemporary photographs, especially when those “facts” are wrapped up in the reputations of established institutions and respected participants such as Bendixen. Himself. This picture book arrives like a slap in the face, and we hope it will always be remembered as more than just a clever gimmick; Few picture books from 2021 should make us think and talk like this one, even when we openly admit that the included pictures are fake. Logic says that if Bendixen can totally fool us, there will be many others who will try and succeed too. We’ve been needing a strong cautionary alert call about the increasing power of manipulated images for a while now, and Phyllis book He succeeded in delivering this message. What we do about this sobering reality, now that Bendiksen has forcefully forced us to confront it, is much less clear. He’s humbled enough people to start some meaningful conversations, so hopefully the uncomfortable awkwardness leads to some good, and maybe even the beginnings of recognition and change.

POV collector: Jonas Bendixen is a member of Magnum Photos (here). His work has only been sporadically available in secondary markets in the past decade, so the retail gallery will likely remain the top choice for collectors interested in pursuing it.

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