Fittingly, Miskin’s account came with the hard-to-verify promise that her profile photo was generated by AI. Bendiksen spent weeks curating her account to resemble an enthusiastic freelance photographer from North Macedonia. He sent friend requests to hundreds of people in the photo business; many reciprocated, including museum curators and magazine photographers.
When Bendiksen got to Perpignan, his duplicity weighed on him. “I was sick to my stomach but I felt I had to document that the screening actually took place,” he says. He avoided the whirl of networking, dining alone and hiding out in his hotel room to avoid meeting anyone he knew. The night of his screening, he arrived early and took a seat high in the bleachers, trying to hide behind his face mask. When the Veles video rolled, a sequence of his bear images soon swam into view. “My heart jumped a beat,” Bendiksen says. “I thought the bears were the weakest link.”
Bendiksen launched his attack on himself the next day, back home in Norway, aiming for the truth to emerge before the festival’s main program ended a few days later. He logged into Miskin’s Facebook account and wrote a post accusing himself of paying subjects to pose fraudulently, declaring “His project is the real fake news!!”
To Bendiksen’s alarm, the post didn’t gain much traction. He re-posted the allegations in a private photography Facebook group, sparking a discussion in which participants largely accepted Miskin’s claims, but found little wrong with paying subjects in photos. His planned self-immolation in tatters, Bendiksen spent days frantically building a Twitter presence for Miskin, ultimately attracting the eagle eye of Chesterton, the UK filmmaker who at last called out the project. “It was a big weight off my shoulders,” Bendiksen says.
He called Magnum’s CEO, Caitlin Hughes, who like almost everybody else with the agency had been kept in the dark. She was standing on a drizzly London street on a night out with her husband when she learned that the company had published a book, and sold prints, that were faked. “I did know he was working on something secretive but I wasn’t expecting this,” she says, “It really shakes the firmament of documentary photography.” The next day, Magnum posted the interview in which Bendiksen came clean, alerting the wider world of photography.
Jean-François Leroy, longtime director of Visa Pour L’Image, learned his prestigious festival had been punked when Bendiksen emailed a link to the interview. The revelation left a sour taste. “We knew Jonas for years and trusted him,” says Leroy, who says he was “trapped.” The festival sometimes asks photographers to see raw, unedited images, but did not ask Bendiksen, whose work had been featured in the past. “I think Jonas should have told me it was a fake,” Leroy says, allowing the festival to make a feature out of disclosing and discussing the stunt and its implications.
Others taken in by Bendiksen’s project have warmer feelings. Julian Montague, an artist and graphic designer in Buffalo, New York, saw Bendiksen post a link to the Magnum interview on Facebook and read with interest. He’d bought 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 artful, not artifice. 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 that knowledge,” he says. “I admire it as an experiment and piece of art and agree with him that it portends a scary future.”
Chesterton, who triggered Bendiksen’s reveal, calls the project “magnificent” but for different reasons. He sees its primary value not as an indicator of the growing power of synthetic imagery, but as a spotlight on the foibles of the photography industry.