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Inside story: what Jonas Bendiksen has learned from photographing isolated communities

Members of the Church of the Last Testament stand in white robes in front of snow-covered trees. Photo by Jonas Bendiksen.
Magnum Photos member Jonas Bendiksen has travelled the world photographing isolated groups, including the members of this self-contained community in southern Siberia. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM) at 1/800 sec, f/7 and ISO3200. © Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum Photos

"Photography, for me, has always been the tool I've used to explore things I'm curious about," says Magnum Photos photographer Jonas Bendiksen. "All my projects come from whatever questions I have about society at a given time. And I often end up looking at some sort of community that is on the margins, or someone who is outside the mainstream."

Satellites (2006), a body of work created over a seven-year period, focused on isolated communities on the fringes of the former Soviet Union. That was followed by The Places We Live (2008), for which Jonas spent three years photographing people living in urban slums in India, Kenya, Indonesia and Venezuela.

Although both projects deal with outsiders, Jonas says that has happened almost by accident. "I just sort of follow the things I'm interested in and then later discover they are not completely unrelated," he says. "But that's more of an afterthought. There's no master plan."

Female members of the Church of the Last Testament stand in coats with fur-lined hoods and shawls on their shoulders.
Jonas has always been fascinated by religion, which was the inspiration for his latest project, The Last Testament. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens at 1/160 sec, f/2.5 and ISO4000. © Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum Photos
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For his most recent major project, The Last Testament, Jonas documented seven men around the world who all describe themselves as Jesus Christ reborn. This not only connected with his fascination with outsiders and enclaves, but was also inspired by his lifelong curiosity about religion.

"There was no religion in my family, but I realised early on that childhood friends of mine had this thing called faith and saw the universe and life slightly differently," he says. "As long as I can remember, I've been fascinated by scriptures and religious texts, whether it's the Bible, the Koran or whatever. Maybe that's because I've never felt what it's like to believe. It was always a mystery to me."

Jonas's project was funded by grants from the Freedom of Expression Foundation, based in Oslo, and Norwegian TV and radio broadcaster NRK. Finding money for these projects is often difficult. "As long as I can remember, my life has revolved around finding the funding to do my projects independently," he says. "It's never been easy and still isn't, but I keep going somehow and it works out in the end."

A temple to Vissarion, leader of the Church of the Last Testament, in south Siberia.
A temple to Vissarion in the Vissarionite village of Petropavlovka. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 1/100 sec, f/2.8 and ISO8000. © Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum Photos

Photographing the community

One of the present-day Messiahs Jonas documented was Vissarion, a former traffic policeman who says that, in 1990, he received the revelation that he is the Christian Messiah reincarnated. He has around 5,000 followers, who live in a self-contained community, with schools and churches, in a remote part of southern Siberia.

Vissarion's story was the key to the whole Last Testament project. "I first heard about him when I was working as a freelancer in Russia in about 2000," Jonas remembers. "Around 2013 I started feeling drawn to create work around religion, so I decided to see if he was still out there. He wasn't hard to find, and that's when I started getting hits on some of the other claimants. That was when I fell into the rabbit hole, so to speak."

Jonas wrote to Vissarion's organisation and asked if it was possible to photograph the community. During the following year he made several visits, staying for about 10 days each time. Throughout, he felt it was important to approach Vissarion and his followers in an open-minded, non-judgmental way.

Members of the Church of the Last Testament dressed in white robes process across a snow-covered landscape.
Vissarion's followers brave the elements to take part in the community's Christmas pilgrimage, when temperatures fell to -30°C. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens at 1/500 sec, f/5 and ISO5000. © Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum Photos

Jonas shot all his images using natural light and chose to work with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV), partly because of its low-light performance. "I've used all the 5D series cameras," he says. "One of the great things about the camera is that as I've upgraded, it's opened up low-light situations I would never have been able to photograph before. I also like the way the files look: they feel real, they feel organic."

Another reason he chose the Canon EOS 5D Mark III was its robust, weather-sealed body. "In the Siberian winter the working conditions were quite difficult," he recalls. "I took some images of the community's Christmas celebration, which is on 14 January because that's Vissarion's birthday. It was an outdoor pilgrimage and the temperatures went down to -30°C. I knew the EOS 5D Mark III would perform well in those conditions."

Even so, Jonas had to handle the camera carefully. "It was all about getting the camera in and out of my jacket when it was needed," he says. "I always shoot in manual mode, just from old habits, so I had to operate all the dials and buttons with huge gloves on."

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Jonas took a range of lenses to cover everything from close-up portraits of Vissarion and his followers to distant outdoor scenes. His kitbag included his go-to lenses, the Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM, the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM (now succeeded by the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM) and the Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM.

He also packed a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L USM (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM) and a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM, which gave him the versatility he wanted.

Although Jonas was faced with some restrictions, particularly in the village where Vissarion resides, those loosened after he had been there a while. "Allowing me to work without a minder was a declaration of trust from their side," he says. "I was also trying to respect their wishes, so I didn't roam around and surprise people; it was about working in a subtle way and not being a nuisance."

As a result, although he didn't quite get "to be a fly on the wall of his life," Jonas managed to create a fascinating portrait of Vissarion's world – his disciples, the wider community and their ceremonies and rituals.

Vissarion, leader of the Church of the Last Testament, stands on a snow-covered hillside, with his followers below.
Vissarion comes out to greet his flock at the culmination of the Christmas pilgrimage. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L USM lens at 1/1250 sec, f/11 and ISO500. © Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum Photos

Life on the outside

Looking back on his experiences with the Church of the Last Testament, Jonas says what surprised him most was his own reaction to the community.

"I almost felt that if I didn't have the various anchors I have at home, I could easily go and live there," he says. "I was moved by their way of life and their community and, temporarily at least, I could understand what it feels like to have that faith. I got to a point where I could really feel it. In a way, for me, that was mission accomplished.

"Most people's reaction is to think they're strange and far out, but the more time I spent digging, the more I found it difficult to decide what makes their beliefs and their Messiah any less plausible than any of the other things people believe."

Jonas says the project also taught him something about himself. "These people have the fortitude and strength, and sometimes the bravery, not to live along the mainstream trajectory," he says. "I think maybe some force in me is uncomfortable about living as conventionally as I do. There's something to be admired about life on the outside, and that's partly what fascinates me."

Autor: David Clark


Jonas Bendiksen's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

A Canon EOS 5D Mark IV camera.

Camera

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Designed to perform in every situation, the EOS 5D Mark IV is beautifully engineered and a thoroughly accomplished all-rounder. "It opens up low-light situations I would never have been able to photograph in before," says Jonas.

Lenses

Canon EF 85mm f/1.8 USM

A short telephoto focal length, combined with a large maximum aperture and fast autofocus speed, make the EF 85mm f/1.8 USM an ideal optic for any photographer shooting portraiture.

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