On fact and fiction in photography

Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen has been featured before in the pages of CR. His 2006 book Satellites, in which he explored the margins of the old Soviet Union, was one of the most talked-about photography projects of recent years. Unsurprising, then, that a new project, the Book of Veles, published in April this year, should attract a lot of attention. But like Zohar’s studio, Veles is playing with the viewer.
It’s a beguiling project. You wonder at the craft of it all, the dedication rather than the deception. The second tale is rather more chilling.
This is a story about two tales of photographic fiction. One, a whimsical, elaborate attempt to construct an alternative history; the other a cautionary tale of a dystopian future.
Scrolling through Twitter one day I was confronted by a black and white photograph of a ‘merkin-seller’. It caught my eye. Ostensibly, this was an image of a young man, taken, supposedly, in the 1860s, proudly displaying a tray of his wares. But all was not what it seemed. A few comments in, someone had posted a link to an Atlantic piece by Lawrence Weschler that revealed the whole bizarre back story. Our pubic wig retailer did not, in fact, originate from a lost photographic studio in 19th-century New York but from the imagination of ‘antiquarian avant-garde’ artist Stephen Berkman. 

Top: An aquapark on the outskirts of Veles, North Macedonia, 2020; Above: Marina, who ran several fake news sites in 2016, Veles, North Macedonia, 2020. All images © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

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