Jonas Bendiksen went out looking for Jesus. And found him! Or them. There are actually seven Jesus in the world right now, at least according to themselves.
Text: Caroline Hainer
Photo: Jonas Bendiksen
Jonas Bendiksen has met and photographed Jesus. He exists in seven different versions, who live in widely different places around the world, such as Japan, Brazil and the United Kingdom. Some of these modern messiahs have thousands of followers, others just a few. But they all have two things in common: They are men and they believe they are God’s son walking the earth.
40-year-old Norwegian Jonas Bendiksen does not come from a religious home and is not a man of faith. But the subject of faith has intrigued him for a long time, in particular faith as a force. What is faith? How does it feel to live with a strong conviction?
The project took him three years to complete. It was important for Bendiksen that everything be taken seriously. In a scientific manner, he made a list of requirements to ensure the authenticity of his objects.
– Of course, you can always find someone who claim to be Jesus in most mental institutions. That is why I had certain criteria: The messiah must have lived with his revelation for a long time and maintained a consistent theology. He also needed to have disciples. With that in mind I could not find many more than the seven I ended up documenting, says Jonas Bendiksen.
Serious intentions – with humor
The result is “The Last Testament”, a series of photos of seven men in different parts of the world with whom Bendiksen has lived for a significant time. As Bendiksen has tried to understand both the Messiah and his disciples the images feel intimate at times, never exploitative. Rather, there is a serious intention to portray the messiah as he sees himself and the way his followers see him. It evokes many different emotions, not least humor. Like in the photo of 69-year-old Inri Cristo in Brazil, who gets around on an electric bike he calls a “modern donkey”. Or British former secret agent David Shayler who once revealed corruption within the British security police but for the last twelve years has proclaimed Christianity through his alter ego Dolores for just a handful of disciples. He signs his email “Christ”.
– Humor is a delicate balancing act and one of the most demanding aspects of the work. I have tried to let the humor come from the messiah and not from me. Like Inri Christos disciples making videos dancing to Spice Girls. Can you laugh at them? Their own reasoning goes like this: “If our music video gets a million hits on YouTube, it means our message is spread and that’s a good thing”. Every time I share photos on social media of dancing disciples or messiah on an electric bike, the disciples are the first to repost. They love it!
We do not actually know for sure what Jesus looks like. Would we recognize him?
The pictures evoke reactions, not least because we do not actually know for sure what Jesus looks like. Would we recognize him? Could he not be David Shayler who, after serving his country, lives in poverty, in accordance to his own rules, after openly criticizing his leaders? Or could he not be Vissarion who has 5000 disciples, most of whom live with him in deepest Siberia, in ecological, self-sufficient small villages with their own schools and churches? Given that he is described in the Bible as an odd creature on the outskirts of society, one could argue that these self-proclaimed messiahs have a lot in common with the original Jesus. Something Bendiksen became even more aware of during his photo project.
– My inbox is full of reactions from all across the spectrum: From those who are fascinated and happy, to those who wish to pray for me. The interesting thing is that the reactions can not be divided into believers and non-believers. Some see the project as a criticism of religion, others as an interpretation of faith. I have been invited to churches and theological institutes to talk about the second coming of Christ. This is momentous to me, that the project has served as an opening for a discussion about faith in our society today. Both atheists and people of faith can be fascinated by the same problems.
Although none of the new messiahs managed to convert Bendiksen himself, the photo project nonetheless affected him and his thoughts on religion.
– I’ve always been a godless person who considers the most important question, regardless of situation or society, to be “is it true or not?”. Is he the Messiah or not? But this project has made me more humble. It may not actually be the most important question. It may even be insignificant. I do not have a definitive answer, but I have become less categorical.
Born 1977 in Norway
Awards: Jonas Bendiksen has received many awards, including 2017 Best Photography Book, Pictures of the year, The last testament, 2014 NPPA Best Photojournalism First Prize and Pictures of the Year International.
Work: Photo journalist, member of Magnum Photos since 2004