Fittingly, Miskin’s account came with a hard-to-verify promise that her profile picture had been generated by an AI. Bendiksen spent weeks formatting her account to resemble an enthusiastic freelance photographer from North Macedonia. Send friend requests to hundreds of people in the field of photography; She exchanged many, including curators and magazine photographers.
When Bendiksen arrived at Perpignan, his ambivalence affected him. “I was sick in my stomach, but I felt I had to document that the scan was actually done,” he says. He avoided the whirl of communication, eating alone, and hiding in his hotel room to avoid meeting anyone he knew. On the night of his show, he arrived early and sat in the stands, trying to hide behind his face mask. When Phyllis’ video was shown, a series of his bear photos quickly swam into the show. “My heart just jumped fast,” Bendixen says. “I thought the bears were the weakest link.”
Bendixen launched his attack on himself the next day, returning to his homeland in Norway, with the aim of showing the truth 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 topics to appear fraudulent, declaring, “His project is REAL FAKE NEWS!!”
For Bendiksen’s alarm, the publication did not gain much traction. He reposted the allegations in a private photography group on Facebook, sparking a discussion in which participants largely agreed with Miskin’s claims, but found little fault with shoving the subjects in the photos. Bendixen spent days building a Twitter presence for Miskin, eventually attracting the eagle eye of Chesterton, the British director who finally called for the project. “It was a lot of weight on my shoulder,” Bendixen says.
He contacted Magnum CEO, Caitlin Hughes, who was kept in the dark like everyone else with the agency. She was standing on a rainy London street one night with her husband when she learned that the company had published a book, and sold fake prints. She says, “I knew he was working on something secret, but I wasn’t expecting this. It really rocks the sky of documentary photography.” The next day, Magnum published the interview in which Bendixen appeared clean, alerting the wider world of photography.
Jean-François Leroy, longtime director of Visa Pour L’Image, learned that his prestigious festival had been spoiled when Bendiksen emailed a link to the interview. The revelation left a pungent flavor. “We’ve known Jonas for years and trusted him,” says Leroy, who says he’s “trapped.” The festival sometimes asks photographers to see raw, unedited photos, but has not asked Bendixen, whose work has been shown in the past. “I think Jonas should have told me it was fake,” LeRoy says, allowing the festival to take advantage of the stunt’s revelation, discussion, and implications.
The others, greeted by the Bendixen Project, have warmer feelings. Julian Montague, an artist and graphic designer in Buffalo, New York, saw Bendixen post a link to a Magnum interview on Facebook and read it with interest. He had bought the book earlier in the year, out of interest in the concept of the fake news industry, and the aesthetics of the former Eastern Bloc. Bendiksen’s pictures, lovable and choppy-lit, struck him as shrewd rather than gimmicky. Now they felt different — in a way that enhanced his experience rather than letting him feel cheated. “It is interesting to revisit the images with this knowledge,” he says. “I admire it as an experiment and a piece of art and agree with him that it portends a frightening future.”
Chesterton, who sparked the Bendixen revelations, calls the project “fantastic,” but for different reasons. He does not see its core value as an indicator of the growing power of synthetic images, but as an indicator of weaknesses in the photographic industry.