In a quiet town of 50,000 in Northern Macedonia on the verge of economic collapse, a black market was born. In the lead-up to the United States 2016 election, which saw Donald Trump running against Hillary Clinton, tech-savvy teenagers in Veles saw an opportunity to make money peddling disinformation—“fake news”—which is considered to have significantly influenced the subsequent election of President Trump.
Jonas Bendiksen traveled to Veles to photograph the town and its inhabitants, culminating in his new book titled The Book of Veles. His photographs of the dilapidated town and its inhabitants are juxtaposed against images of a supposedly ancient Slavic text, also titled The Book of Veles. Discovered on wooden planks in the early 20th century, The Book of Veles was purportedly a pagan epic from roughly 7th century BC, and its discovery and subsequent modern translations led to the rise of a new religion, before it was deemed a forgery.
The cult-like following that The Book of Veles inspired could be compared to the cult of personality that arose in 2016 surrounding Trump and his foray into politics, a cult that was spearheaded by this group of teenagers and their fake news articles. To be clear, the teenagers say, they personally were not influenced by Trump or Clinton’s politics—rather, they were following the money. The outcome of their work, and how it affected America’s election, was inconsequential to them.
There’s an ominous feeling, flipping through the book. Through the thick grain of the images, the pictures appear as if they’re stills from a 1980’s VHS, examining some faraway land. Everything seems fluorescently lit, in off-putting shades of greens and greys. In this dismal place, the residents themselves seem to be trapped in an uncanny valley.
Looking closely, it almost seems unbelievable. Is this the face of the previously faceless men and women responsible for the plague of disinformation? What lies are they responsible for? In the forward, Bendiksen presents a treatise on fact versus fiction; “I realized the truth is something we create,” he wrote.
And he did create it. In September, months after his book debuted and sold around the world, Bendiksen revealed in a Magnum interview that his book, much like the Book of Veles before it, was a work of fiction. These photographs were not of residents of Veles, but rather 3D models he purchased online. The base images are his—he traveled to Veles twice, taking photographs of the town that were intentionally devoid of people so that he could later drop these digital avatars into them.
And that opening treatise? Written by an AI text generator. “I started to ask myself the question,” he said to Magnum, “How long will it take before we start seeing “documentary photojournalism” that has no other basis in reality than the photographer’s fantasy and a powerful computer graphics card? Will we be able to tell the difference? How hard is it to do? How skilled will our own community of photographers and editors be in sniffing out what are deep fakes and what is real?”.
By Christina Cacouris
Christina Cacouris is a writer and curator based in Paris and New York.