For his book The Last Testament Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen travelled the world to meet seven men who publicly claim to be the biblical Messiah. “Faith has always been mysterious to me,” he tells It’s Nice That. “I didn’t grow up in a religious environment, but I wanted to explore what faith feels like. My composition has always been a slave to rationality and function, so when I came across these men, it was irresistible; I could go and talk to Jesus and touch and feel the whole thing. It became tangible.”
The first Messiah Jonas heard about was Vissarion of Siberia, then after much research he found more: Jesus of Kitwe in Zambia, Moses Hlongwane in South Africa, Jesus Matayoshi in Japan. Each completely dedicates their life to their belief, some with thousands of followers and others just a few, and Jonas went to live among these disciples to document their day-to-day rituals. With a career built on documentary photography, Jonas wanted to bring his frank aesthetic approach to the project.
“In each case my methodology was to take everything I was being told and shown, and present it at face value,” says Jonas. “If this is the return of the Messiah, what does the world look like in that moment? I wanted it to be as straight, simple and honest as possible. Some go around in robes and with a beard, like the Renaissance painter version of Jesus, others are more contemporary. I just wanted to record what I saw.”
Of course there are elements of humour, Jonas admits, but he stresses it was vital this was never imposed. “There are comical details, but this comes from them. In mythology when divine and earthly meet, there’s always friction and comedy. Plus it’s an important communication tool.”
According to the photographer, the most unexpected aspect of the project was that none of the “Messiahs” or their followers once questioned Jonas’ motives. “None of them were interested in what I was doing,” he laughs. “They liked that I was interested, but they didn’t care about the story I was telling. No one asked what I believed, or what I thought. They weren’t aggressively trying to convert me, there was no pressure. Everyone was very open-minded and flexible, surprisingly.”
There’s been a mixed reaction from the public, which he did expect, to the book and accompanying TV series in Norway. “I’ve been getting reactions every day in my inbox. Some people are very upset, but mostly it’s been positive. I’m not here to de-cloak anyone or dissuade faith. In a way I’m trying to build a case that one of them might be the chosen one,” he explains. “Is anything less plausible than what is written in the Bible? These people are fringe characters, outsiders, but so was Jesus. If you believe the prophecy that Jesus will return, then why wouldn’t you check these guys out?”
The Last Testament by Jonas Bendiksen is published by Aperture and Gost.
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