Jonas Bendiksen Takes Photos in Countries That Don't Exist
We asked him why he is so drawn to the world's forgotten people.
NORWAY. Vesterålen. Burning barrack.
Magnum is probably the most famous photo agency in the world. Even if you haven't heard of it, chances are you're familiar with its images, be they Robert Capa's coverage of the Spanish Civil War or Martin Parr's very British holiday-scapes. Unlike most agencies, Magnum's members are selected by the other photographers on the agency, so becoming a member is a pretty gruelling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we will be profiling some of their photographers over the coming weeks.
Unlike almost all of the other photographers we have spoken to in the VICE Loves Magnum series, Jonas Bendiksen’s work hasn’t been focused on warzones or conflict. Having worked his way through Magnum, starting as an intern and going on to become a full member, his view on how photography can engage with the world around us is pretty informed. From examining life in marginal post-Soviet states to exploring humanity’s every quickening transition from country to city life and its impacts, we talked to him about how photography can engage with the world, and why people should stop seeing slums as aberrations.
VICE: I’m sure you’ve been asked this lots of times: As someone who's worked his way up through the ranks at Magnum, you must have an interesting perspective on the agency as a whole. If you were asked to sum it up, what makes Magnum so important in the photography world?
Jonas Bendiksen: Well, I think what makes Magnum interesting and still relevant is that you have this incredibly diverse range of photographers, who in their own ways create photography that’s a commentary on what they see around them. And I think Magnum is definitely in a way more interesting photographically in recent years because it’s become more diverse.
NORWAY. Vesterålen. Schoolyard with ice floes.
As you’ve just said, it’s a very diverse group of photographers. But would you ever say that there was a kind of "mission"?
Magnum have a common goal: to use photography to be part of a conversation about the world around us. To make a comment about the world we see around us. Within that, each photographer might be interested in different things; but that goal is the common denominator.
Related to that, how would you describe the idea behind your book, Satellites? It was about examining a somewhat forgotten region, right?
Yeah, the book is a journey through the fringes of the former Soviet Union. I stopped in all these places that you could say, on paper, don’t really exist. I mean there are these breakaway republics such as Transnistria and Abkhazia, that exist physically – they have their own borders and governments – but which are unrecognised. You could say these places represent some of the unfinished business of the Soviet breakup. So, that became a journey for me.
NORWAY. Vesterålen. Myre harbour.
What were your experiences of these places and of the people who live there? Did you notice any unifying characteristics?
You could say these were all people living under quite a bit of pressure, in the sense that life in these places is economically hard. To this day they are somewhat isolated from the rest of the world. It’s hard to travel from there and it's hard to make a living while there. At the same time, these places are all quite different, and have their own unique character.
Places We Live was the book after Satellites. It dealt with the idea that for the first time ever, more people live in cities than outside of them, globally. Did you treat it as an environmental issue or rather as a social issue?
I think my point is that both notions are completely inseparable. It's one of the things that working on that project made me think about. I mean, I’m not trying to say whether living in cities is a bad or good thing. What I'm saying is that it’s a phenomenon and we have to deal with it. More than one billion people live in slums and that number is forever increasing. We need to accept that these are how modern cities function and engage with the problem.
RUSSIA. Near Sergeyev Posad. 2011. Palina (6), plays in the foliage next to the dacha where she spends her summer.
Following on from what you’ve just said, were you at all surprised by these places’ ability to function?
I think that’s what surprised me throughout the entire project. Also, why I made the project; I had read all these statistics and felt it was an issue that needed to be explored. But what really made me want to expand the project was that I was overwhelmed by the normalcy of these places. I was bowled over by that much more than the obvious challenges. You see the huge amounts of garbage and among them, you see normal people living pretty normal lives, dealing with the same issues as people everywhere else. They’re helping their kids to do homework, trying to make a living, keeping their families together. You know that project was an exploration of how people create normalcy in these kind of extreme settings.
RUSSIA. Vyalki, near Bykovo. 2011. Girls bathe their horses in a swimming pond next to an upscale dacha community.
One thing that struck me is that I think you’re the first photographer in this series that we’ve spoken to who hasn’t spent a part of their career in a war zone. Is it something that you’ve never been interested in?
You could say it’s not the type of thing that has really worked in my life. I became a father at the age of 24. So through much of my career I have been a father, you know it’s just never made any sense to me to be the guy who flies off to where they’re dropping bombs. And I think that there are so many interesting issues to look at around the world. There are so many other forces and pressures working on human beings around the world that create so many fascinating and complex situations.
There is certainly room for someone who is not going to conflict to still do interesting work. So, it’s never really been on my agenda. I’m not quite sure why, but I’ve always taken the most satisfaction when I do stories where I feel somewhat left alone, stories that everyone’s not chasing after. Which led me up to working on projects that are a little but outside of the big headlines; smaller stories. Maybe they aren’t as dramatic and sexy as some of these other things but to me that’s always been the most satisfying way to work. I feel like I’m bringing something to the table by engaging in a story that might not have gotten so much play otherwise.
BANGLADESH. Asulia. 2010. This type of brick kiln is ubiquitous in Bangladesh, but is a heavy polluter (as it's both coal-fired and ineffective), both in terms of CO2 and air quality. As Jonas was shooting, a storm came in with heavy winds and rainfall. The workers are digging up submerged bricks and throwing them up onto land for them to be collected and taken to a waiting boat.
I guess I hadn’t thought much about it. No matter how important the work you're doing, you’re in competition with a great deal of photographers in the same place. For example, I suppose Satellites was an isolated project. Knowing that nobody else did what you were doing must have allowed you freedom.
Yeah, but don’t get me wrong, I absolutely think that people should be going out there to cover conflict stories. I think it’s very worthy work. It’s just that it has never fitted into my life. And it’s a good and a bad thing. In a way, it becomes kind of lonely because you’re working on all these small things. I miss the camaraderie, the social part of working in those places that I think many photographers and journalists have. But it’s just the way things have evolved for me.
Click through to see more photography by Jonas Bendiksen.
BANGLADESH. Padmapukur. 2009. On the "char" (silt island) of Padmapukur, in the Ganges delta. Hurricane Aila destroyed the dikes, causing daily flooding of the communities.
ICELAND. Reydarfjordur. 2007. Thirty-year-old Aalheiur Vilbergsdottir, plays with her two young sons at the Reydarfjordur beach right across from their house, with the town in the background. She is a lifetime Reydarfjordur resident, along with her whole family.
RUSSIA. Altai Territory. 2000. Villagers collect scrap from a crashed spacecraft, surrounded by thousands of white butterflies. Environmentalists fear for the region's future due to the toxic rocket fuel.
MOLDOVA. Transdniester. 2004. The population of Transdniester is mainly ethnic Russians, and the main religion is Russian Orthodox Christianity. Here a priest gives his blessings before a christening in the icy waters.
GEORGIA. Abkhazia. Sukhum. 2005. Although Abkhazia is isolated, half-abandoned and still suffering war wounds due to its unrecognised status, both locals and Russian tourists are drawn to the warm waters of the Black Sea. This unrecognised country, on a lush stretch of Black Sea coast, won its independence from the former Soviet republic of Georgia after a fierce war in 1993.
INDIA. Mumbai. 2006. A little girl plays in Laxmi Chawl, a neighbourhood of Dharavi. The lightbulbs are put out for an upcoming neighbourhood wedding.
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