From South Africa to Russia, Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen has crossed the globe to find the people who are believed to be Christ’s Second Coming
Jonas Bendiksen has come face-to-face with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
In fact, the Norwegian photographer has met a few of them. There are seven Second Comings in total, based all over the world. He shared a bed with one while visiting him and his disciples in South Africa; accidentally clambered an extremely important holy tree while staying with another in Russia. (He was forgiven for the mistep.)
While their fortunes and respective followings differ, each of these seven men – yes, all men – are united by the fact that they truly believe the revelation that they are the Messiah resurrected. Whether they operate out of a single room, or sit at the head of a multi-million-dollar company, these figures share a deep-rooted, fundamental belief in themselves and their greater role in the universe. For Bendiksen, a self-christened “slave to science and rationality”, it was a chance to engage with religion and faith, a subject that, to him, always carried with it an inexplicable draw.
“For years, I’d been having this urge – this latent urge – to explore and engage with religion and faith, somehow. It was something that had been growing on me for years. I guess that comes out of opening any newspaper, on any given day, and really seeing that religion still has an amazing influence and presence in society. Many people, they think religion has released its hold on society somehow and faded into the background, but it’s a force that very much still plays out in society in a very strong way.”
“I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got an opportunity to meet and touch divinity itself, The Son of God’. I could actually touch and feel him and ask him questions – and get some answers” – Jonas Bendiksen
Upon discovering in 2014 that there were people out there publicly claiming to be The Lord himself, Bendiksen set off to explore, spending a period of three years documenting the routines and daily lives of these men and their dedicated disciples. The result is The Last Testament, a collection of photographs, visual accounts and stories chronicling his journey into the divine unknown. Imagined as the third instalment in a trilogy preluded by the Old and New Testaments, Bendiksen’s book of images is a blend of striking, empirical photojournalism and profane, fantastical storytelling.
“Like, wow,” he recalls, chuckling. “I remember thinking, ‘I’ve got an opportunity to meet and touch divinity itself, The Son of God’. I could actually touch and feel him and ask him questions – and get some answers.
“Whereas previously, when people talk about God, it’s the huge, vague force that permits the universe somehow. That type of God, without a face without a personality, that is very abstract to me. But being one who likes to touch and feel things and encounter them first-hand, it was this amazing opportunity to go and do exactly that.”
The photos of The Last Testament zip in and out of the recognisable human and the truly other-worldly, with the book dedicating chapters to each individual Messiah and their respective theology. While such an approach could easily find itself tumbling into satire or mockery in the hands of another, Bendiksen keeps an appropriate distance, choosing not to focus on reductive binaries of truth and falsity, instead seeking to narrate the whole, cosmic phenomenon in its entirety.
“Previously in my life, I’ve always been very sure of myself in regards to the question of whether something really is true,” he explains. “It’s always the critical question for me – no matter what the situation. Prior to this, that was always the prime, prime question. ‘Is it true – is it really true?’ A question like that. ‘Is it really the Messiah, or is it not?’
“I guess this project has forced me many times to confront myself about exactly that question… (The Messiahs) have created these communities – in many cases, very wonderful communities – and meaningful lives. They are lives that are probably much more meaningful than they would have without. Is it then really so critical, whether it is true or not? I don’t have the answer to that, I guess I’ve been mulling that ever since. I guess I’m full of humility before that question.”
For Bendiksen, it was never about wanting to get to the bottom of anything (or, as he terms it, “decloak” these men). Sure, The Last Testament is about the faith and lives of seven individual men, but it’s also just as much a mediation on everyone’s relationship with anything that deviates from what we deem the norm.
“That’s what’s fascinating to me about spending time with both the Messiahs and their disciples – me. I wake up and at my door, I see the grey and normal street; I see the forces of nature at work; I see cause and consequence, the mechanics of the world playing out. Whatever meaning I want to have in life, I have to create myself with the people around me. That’s my set-up. But with these people, they go down the same street and they see signs and importance everywhere. They see meaning, they see messages from God – revelation everywhere. They see cosmic meaning in everything around them, where I would just see normality.
“That’s truly magical for me to be part of and to get to experience and get to taste. It’s a taste of what true faith would feel like, or must feel like – this much more magical world to be experienced.
“It was fascinating just to get a scent of it.”
The Last Testament – published by GOST – will be available from September