Theory & Practice

Jonas Bendiksen: Curiosity in Practice

The new online education course with Jonas Bendiksen explores the inspiration found in a restless attitude to making photographs — as well as the nitty-gritty details of the craft

Magnum Learn is a series of on-demand video courses led by Magnum photographers who provide practical insights into their photographic processes and careers. The latest course in the series is led by Jonas Bendiksen. Joining Magnum in 2004, Bendiksen is perhaps best known for his major book projects Satellites— which mapped the decaying former states of the Soviet Union— and The Last Testament —an exploration of faith through the story of seven self-proclaimed present-day Messiah figures.

In this Q&A, Bendiksen explains the value of retaining a novice’s perspective in photography, planning your approach as a means of ‘setting yourself up for luck’, and how he complements his curiosity for image-making with an enthusiasm for the nuts-and-bolts of the photographic process.

You can watch a trailer for the course at the bottom of this article. Find out more about the course and start learning here.

Over 18 lessons you cover your whole career to date, and many separate aspects of the photographic workplace. What was your own photographic education like? Were you self-taught and propelled by inspiration, or did you approach photography more as a profession? 

One of the reasons I wanted to create this course was that I myself am mainly self-taught.  I was a very restless kid, so I couldn’t see a path for me on a degree course. It’s not that I’m not interested in the theory, but I always have had to ‘live it’ to make photography applicable to me. I’m driven by curiosity. It’s just how my brain works. I thought early on that the most workable path seemed to be learning by doing, and trying to glean as much as information as I could from hanging around people with a lot of experience. So when I got the chance to do this online course, I thought, “Ok, what are the lessons I would have wanted most back then, when I was 19 and trying to do all this for the first time?” I wanted this to be a mix of a practical, hands-on guide, and an insight into my inspiration and deeper thinking around my projects and processes.

When I teach workshops I’m often amazed at how starved students are for nuts-and-bolts advice, even after they have studied photography for five years and hold Master’s degrees. They want to know the nitty-gritty of a day in the field, how to plan their projects, how to write proposals, or techniques for sifting through an intimidatingly large pile of images. I always get a lot of joy sharing my way of dealing with all these questions with them; I feel I contribute something they didn’t pick up in school.

And how do you see your approach now in these terms?

For me photography is a tool by which I get to explore all the questions I have about the world, our society, or what it is like to be human. If I am going around wondering about something, that can be the start of a new project. I always try to have at least one personal project in the works, aiming for books and exhibitions. At the same time, I have always been a working photographer, making a living by doing assignments, both editorial and commercial. I’m always juggling all these things, the need for an income, the need for my own artistic creative pursuits, that delicate balance between my needs, various clients’ needs, my family needs, and — unfortunately — the bank, that holds my mortgage’s needs. It’s not always easy — I think most photographers grapple with the difficulties of figuring out how to live and create. In the course, I try to give some guidance as to how that works for me — knowing very well that every individual has to figure out their own mixture.

You were an intern at Magnum – and became a member of the collective… In what way was that time educational for you?  

I consider the year I spent as an intern at the Magnum office in London my real photographic education. I was 19 years old, and it was a dream come true. I was sort of star-struck, and while I was probably the lowest-ranking member of the staff, I learned a tremendous amount. I made tea and coffee, ran errands to the post office, answered the phone, and did various tasks around the archive.

I was so hungry for any sort of knowledge about how the photography industry worked. I was eavesdropping on all the other team members’ telephone conversations. I basically had a year to carry out my own industrial espionage on Magnum and prepare myself for being a freelance photographer. How did they talk to clients? How did they figure out the structure of a project? What were the planning and logistics required before a photographer went away on a shoot? I took notes of everything I learned. I learned the archive by heart, I thumbed through folders of old contact sheets to see how the different photographers worked. I plead guilty to copying key telephone numbers from rolodexes that were lying around the office.

I think this experience as a lowly intern made me always keep a novice’s perspective with me. Even after twenty years in the field, I still feel like a beginner much of the time. In every project I learn new things, and it is this feeling that photography helps me learn something that keeps it fresh for me. I often tell students, half-jokingly, that I can probably download 90% of whatever wisdom I’ve acquired in about one day. So, the six hours of this course should probably contain a big chunk of that!

What was your first major project and how much did it teach you? How much more did it make you realise you had to learn? 

Once I had finished the internship, I moved to Siberia in Russia to make my first real photographic project. I was fascinated by Russia and the former USSR, partly because of my own family history. It’s a long story, which I tell more about in the course. But I ended up living in a small town in the Russian Far East called Birobidzhan for about 10 months, which, without me knowing it at the time, became the start to my seven-year project Satellites, my first book. I learned photography through the makings of this project, and I think found myself as a photographer through all the trials and errors, successes, and failures of the Satellites years.

Jonas Bendiksen The first Jewish homeland of modern time, created 20 years before Israel, located in Far-East Siberia. People waiting for the morning bus in the freezing winter, which often reaches -40 Celcius. Bi (...)

"I think found myself as a photographer through all the trials and errors, successes, and failures of the Satellites years."

- Jonas Bendiksen
Jonas Bendiksen Russia. Birobidzhan, Jewish Autonomous Region. 1999. The Star of David is scribbled on a broken apartment block window. © Jonas Bendiksen | Magnum Photos
Jonas Bendiksen Russia. Birobidzhan, Jewish Autonomous Region of Russia. 1999. Stalin looks out on his creation while Raisa sews. © Jonas Bendiksen | Magnum Photos
Jonas Bendiksen Russia. Birobidzhan, The Jewish Autonomous Region of Russia. 1999. In the Khoddus family household. © Jonas Bendiksen | Magnum Photos

How does discovery and seeking out the unknown play a part in your work? What are the benefits and drawbacks—if any— of restlessness in photographic practice?

Every photographer has his or her own engine that runs on a specific mixture of fuel. That’s the challenge of teaching photography. The parameters that give optimal creative conditions for one, is a complete dud for the next one. For me, I fear losing my sense of restlessness and curiosity. Not just in a physical or geographic sense, but also in photography itself. I often feel uneasy about repeating something that has worked for me in the past — to try to figure out what it takes to keep myself curious long term, vis-a-vis following some formula that I might have ‘cracked’ long ago and that audiences and clients have come to expect. This is a challenge that comes when one has been around a while: a different problem than people who are just starting out are facing.

For me I guess the main thing is that I accept that unease, and let it somehow propel me to look at what I do with fresh eyes and renewed context as I move forward.

What do you gain more satisfaction from: the surprise of capturing something you didn’t plan, or refining and working through the challenges of building a photographic story over time?

It’s the classic Winnie the Pooh, “Yes please, both!”. One of the joys of photography is the constant play of serendipity. But you plan for setting yourself up for luck, and this also comes with experience. You need to be ready to make use of whatever luck throws your way, and it’s often a matter of split seconds. I’ve had a few ridiculous close calls in this vein, including my most well-known image from Satellites: the one with the butterflies. For a few moments Mother Nature served up a really, spectacularly lucky, unique scene. This was quite early in my career, and if you look at the contact sheet, it is frightening to look at – I was obviously not quite attuned to the luck element, and very, very nearly missed the shot.

Jonas Bendiksen Villagers collecting scrap from a crashed spacecraft, surrounded by thousands of white butterflies. Environmentalists fear for the region's future due to the toxic rocket fuel. Altai Territory. Ru (...)
Image by Laara Matsen

"I was obviously not quite attuned to the luck element, and very, very nearly missed the shot."

- Jonas Bendiksen
Jonas Bendiksen Babushka Tanya's run down apartment. Sukhum, Abkhazia. Georgia. 2005. © Jonas Bendiksen | Magnum Photos
Jonas Bendiksen A girl steps over a puddle surrounded by damaged buildings. Abkhazia is an unrecognized country on a lush stretch of Black Sea coast. Sukhum, Abkhazia. Georgia. 2005. © Jonas Bendiksen | Magnum Photos
Jonas Bendiksen Russia. Altai Territory. 2000. Dead cows lying on a cliff. The local population claim whole herds of cattle and sheep regularly die as a result of rocket fuel poisoned soil. © Jonas Bendiksen | Magnum Photos

Looking at your old contact sheets or digital catalogs in chronological sequence is a very useful learning experience: once you have some distance from the situation itself, you can learn a lot about how you reacted to situations, what you did right, and where you might have fallen out of the flow. In the course, we look at some of mine and I take you through some situations I encountered myself, trying to walk you through what I was thinking throughout the process: what worked and what didn’t. Photography is so much about trial and error, at least for me.

You discuss your book project, The Last Testament, in depth in the course, even shooting a follow-up of sorts with a local man who claims to be Jesus reincarnated. That project saw you having to be highly adaptable, both on the ground and in how you created your book — based on the various characters you worked with. How crucial is adaptability to success in photography?

Again, it is hard to generalize too much, because good photography comes from a photographer showing the world as seen exactly through their eyes, not mine. That’s why it is fun to look at: you get to see the world through someone else’s viewpoint. But in my case, being flexible and adaptable is key. Every major project I do has ended up in a slightly different place than where I thought it would be when I started. As I get deeper into a project, I always have to change course slightly and fine-tune (or in some cases totally change) my idea once I’ve gotten a deeper feeling for the subject.

Jonas Bendiksen From "The Last Testament". South Africa. KwaZulu Natal. 2016. Moses preaches to his flock during the wedding. Moses Hlongwane is known to his thirty or so disciples in South Africa as The King of K (...)
Jonas Bendiksen From "The Last Testament". Russia. Krasnoyarsk Territory. 2015. Disciples of Vissarion at a communal lunch during a Christmas pilgrimage. Christmas for them is January 14th, Vissarion’s birthday. I (...)
Jonas Bendiksen From the book “The Last Testament”. Brazil. Brasilia. 2014. INRI Cristo’s disciples rolling him around on the compound grounds on his rolling pedestal. INRI (born Alvaro Theiss) takes his first nam (...)
Jonas Bendiksen From "The Last Testament". Russia. Krasnoyarsk Territory. 2016. Followers of Vissarion gather water from a frozen stream in Obitel Rassveta, the Abode of Dawn. In 1988 the man born as Sergei Torop (...)
Jonas Bendiksen From "The Last Testament". South Africa. KwaZulu Natal. 2016. Moses’ cap. Moses Hlongwane is known to his thirty or so disciples in South Africa as The King of Kings, The Lord of Lords, or simply: (...)

Your course spans the potentially elusive aspects of photography: inspiration, for example, as well as covering practical issues and challenges, like pitching and editing. Do you think the latter — the nuts and bolts of photography — are somewhat neglected in photographic education? Perhaps people prefer to dwell on more romantic or lyrical aspects of the art from? 

Absolutely, and I find it almost comical. Photographers and educators often talk about the higher meaning of their work, maybe in an attempt at elevating their own artfulness. At the same time, it seems they are guarding simple, practical, actionable advice like they are the codes to nuclear bombs. Students often end up utterly confused, because they are filled to the brim with analytical critiques of everything they are supposed to consider, but very little training in actually getting anything done. I sometimes wonder if the completely non-practical nature of so much photography education is a defensive move, a way for established photographers to protect their turf: elevate what you do to holy-grail standards, but hide the treasure map of how to get there.

Or maybe it’s not such a conspiracy. Perhaps photographers simply don’t want to be seen down at that level, talking about the simple nuts-and-bolts. It takes something away from their status as great artists. If that is the case, I always happily sacrifice myself and try to share my solutions to some of those ground-level problems!

You explore editing, sharing digital contact sheets and working through the steps to narrowing your selection. What would you say your ‘hit rate’ is when shooting, and how under-valued is the editing process when people speak about making a successful project? 

I always get it on the first try. Ehhh… or not. I did a lot of stories with National Geographic over the years, and that taught me a lot about editing. There you have to share your entire folder of raw files, so an editor goes through every single situation you photograph together with you, and analyses what you produced, seeing all the duds and outtakes. Showing all your outtakes and failures makes you feel totally naked, almost shameful at times. Why couldn’t I make a good photograph in that given situation? What moves did I fail to make that would have resolved the composition? How could I miss that moment? This can get really uncomfortable at times, but that process taught me a lot.

In my view, editing is as important as the actual photographing: it is where you really decide who you are as a photographer, and where you shape your project. People often say they dislike the editing stage, but for me it is a critical part of the creative process, and I tend to spend a lot of time on it.

I sometimes feel embarrassed when I see what a low hit rate I have. Digital photography has for sure made me produce more garbage pictures than when I had to parse out rolls of film. But in the end, it is not about hit rates and percentages. It’s about how you move through a scene in three dimensions, trying things, sketching things out with your camera – and finally getting to the picture.