Fittingly, Miskin’s account came with the difficult-to-verify promise that her profile photo was AI generated. Bendiksen has spent weeks setting up her account to look like an enthusiastic freelance photographer from North Macedonia. He has sent friend requests to hundreds of people in the photography business; many have returned the favor, including museum curators and magazine photographers.
When Bendiksen arrived in Perpignan, his duplicity weighed on him. “I had a stomach ache, but I felt I had to document that the screening had actually taken place,” he says. He avoided the whirlwind of networking, dining alone, and hiding in his hotel room to avoid meeting someone he knew. On the night of his screening, he arrived early and sat high in the stands, trying to hide behind his face mask. When Veles’ video filmed, footage of his bear footage quickly appeared. “My heart skipped a beat,” Bendiksen says. “I thought bears were the weakest link.”
Bendiksen launched his attack on himself the next day, back home in Norway, aimed at unraveling the truth before the festival’s main program ended a few days later. He logged into Miskin’s Facebook account and wrote an article accusing himself of paying subjects to pose fraudulently, stating “His project is real fake news !!”
Much to Bendiksen’s concern, the post has not gained much ground. He reposted the allegations in a private photography Facebook group, triggering a discussion in which attendees broadly accepted Miskin’s claims, but found little harm in paying for subjects in photos. With his planned self-immolation in tatters, Bendiksen spent days frantically building a Twitter presence for Miskin, ultimately catching the eagle eye of Chesterton, the British filmmaker who finally called the project. “It was a big weight on my shoulders,” says Bendiksen.
He called Magnum CEO Caitlin Hughes, who, like almost everyone at the agency, had been kept in the dark. She was standing on a foggy London street at a party with her husband when she learned that the company had published a book and sold forged prints. “I knew he was working on something secret, but I didn’t expect it,” she says, “It’s really rocking the firmament of documentary photography.” The next day, Magnum published the interview in which Bendiksen was frank, alerting the photography world at large.
Jean-François Leroy, longtime director of Visa Pour L’Image, learned that his prestigious festival was punk when Bendiksen emailed a link to the interview. The revelation left a bitter taste. “We had known Jonas for years and trusted him,” says Leroy, who says he was “trapped”. The festival sometimes asks photographers to see raw, never-before-seen footage, but didn’t ask Bendiksen, whose work had already been featured. “I think Jonas should have told me it was a fake,” Leroy says, allowing the festival to make a feature film of the disclosure and discussion of the stunt and its implications.
Others welcomed by the Bendiksen project have warmer feelings. Julian Montague, artist and graphic designer in Buffalo, New York, saw Bendiksen post a link to the Magnum interview on Facebook and read with interest. He had purchased the book earlier in the year out of interest in the concept of a fake news industry and the aesthetics of the former Eastern Bloc. Bendiksen’s images, grainy and with moody lighting, had struck him as clever and not artificial. Now they felt different, in a way that enhanced his experience rather than leaving him feeling cheated. “It’s interesting to revisit the photographs with this knowledge,” he says. “I admire it as an experience and a work of art and agree with him that it portends a scary future.”
Chesterton, who sparked Bendiksen’s revelation, calls the project “magnificent” but for different reasons. He sees its primary value not as an indicator of the growing power of computer-generated imagery, but as a spotlight on the weaknesses of the photography industry.