In the latest book from Jonas Bendiksen, the Norwegian photographer takes us on a global journey of spiritual exploration, seen through the worldview of seven fascinating individuals who literally believe themselves to be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
It’s an expansive and sumptuously designed book of more than 140 photographs and several thousand words of accompanying textual scriptures, co-published by GOST and Aperture. In it, Bendiksen portrays himself as a photographic apostle, asking why the Bible story of a returning Messiah has remained so potent.
“My approach here was to ask, who is this person and who are their followers,” he explains. “By immersing myself in their revelations and spending time with their disciples, I’ve tried to produce images that illustrate the human longing for faith, meaning, and salvation.
“My method when I am in with these guys is to take everything they tell me at face value. I’m there as a photographic apostle,” adds Bendiksen. “When I was with them I wanted to live 100 percent in their world with their disciples, and ask, ‘What does it look like if that actually is the Messiah?’ If this is the Messiah, then they are here to bring about the end-times and the judgement of man and brings God’s kingdom down to earth as promised.
“They are not gurus, prophets or religious leaders – there are thousands of those in the world – they are not here to start a new spiritual movement, they are finishing off unfinished business, calculating the tab of humanity. You know, this could be the biggest journalistic scoop ever…”
As Shayler now lives in a shack in the woods and has a female alter ego, Dolores Kane, Bendiksen was prompted to ask if he ever wondered whether he was just mentally ill, to which Shaler replied: “Yes. Day two after my anointment I woke up and thought, ‘Fucking hell, I thought I was Jesus Christ yesterday. I’ve gone completely bonkers!’ And then I started reading the Scriptures. That’s why those ancient documents are there really, to say there’s something here that predates my existence.”
Occasionally I suspect that Bendiksen is playing a trickster’s game on us, asking us to enter into his mindset of open-mindedness towards contemplating the possibility that these people are anything other than deluded souls who are part huckster, part demagogue.
With regards to Moses, who is the Messiah living in Zambia, there is undeniable humour in being told that, “Jesus of Nazareth was a carpenter by trade. Upon his return 2000 years later, he operates two unlicensed taxis in Kitwe, Zambia.”
However, in his enthusiasm to be considered a would-be apostle, Bendiksen goes to great lengths to ingratiate himself with his subjects. “In the short time that has elapsed since I met Moses, I’ve tried to follow a whirlwind verbal tour of his awakening as the Messiah and the impending Final Judgment and End of Days,” he says.
“Moses does seem like a really nice guy. It’s just a bit intimidating to share a bed with someone who just told you that he’s immortal. “
Without the benefit of audio recordings of these men their charisma and biblical magnetism doesn’t come across in the pictures as it might. Perhaps as Bendiksen says, when in a room with a silent Jesus that you have to feel their gaze and the warmth of their skin to appreciate the pull that they exert over those-who-are-called.
Nonetheless, The Last Testament remains a compelling visual depiction of some of the most self-possessed religious men on the planet.
Jonas Bendiksen is signing copies of The Last Testament at 2pm on 11 November at the Aperture stand at Paris Photo https://programme.parisphoto.com/en/book-signings.htm The Last Testament is co-published by Aperture and GOST. jonasbendiksen.com https://aperture.org/ https://www.gostbooks.com/