Capturing the strangely, beautifully unique in communities and people we can’t always relate to, has made the talented storyteller Jonas Bendiksen one of Norway’s most successful photographers, recognized around the globe. He started out as an intern at famed photo agency Magnum, and, at 41, has already served as its president. His many projects and pictures for publications like National Geographic, as well as three acclaimed books of photographic documentaries, have received unanimous acclaim. We sat down with him in his home outside of Oslo for a chat about how to succeed as a photographer in the age of Instagram, Snap and Facebook.
I’m sitting in the colorful dining room of Jonas Bendiksen’s new villa looking out on a master piece ocean view through a really big window at Nesodden, a bohemian spirited, artistic peninsula outside Oslo known for its many great artists. The view definitely sets the tone for the conversation and stories the photographer is telling me. So does his feeding of his little daughter, Billie, who figured sleeping on this very kitchen table in Magnum’s latest collaborative project Home. The situation lends Bendiksen an air of patience and kindness.
He says he got to this point in his career as an artist and photographer mainly because of stubbornness and determination, but that he first and foremost had an urge to tell stories.
“As a teenager, I discovered my mother’s heritage from the old Soviet Union. I needed to seek out that part of myself. So at nineteen I went to live there, to experience the dissonance of growing up in the Norwegian middle class with this completely different culture and knowing that it was a part of me and my family,” he says.
“That’s where the fascination with people living kind of in-between in different societies started.”
Bendiksen never went to school to learn how to take pictures. He just saw photography as a tool to tell the stories he wanted to tell. Whenever he got hung up on something – a great book, perhaps, or just observed a situation he didn´t understand – he emerged himself in it, going as deep as possible.
Billie is also in an exploratory mood. When not discovering gravity by throwing stuff on the floor, she is happily babbling noises, engaged in her father’s storytelling while looking up at him with big, blue eyes. Bendiksen calmly picks the objects up and hands them back to her so she can do it again. The foundations of some great understanding to come.
In Bendiksen’s latest massively acclaimed project The Last Testament, he documents men who believe they are the second coming of Christ, getting uniquely up and personal with the men and their followers. How does he get so close to his subjects without it feeling strange for them?
“Just by being basically curious and sincere when I meet them. Being curious is the main key to succeed at anything. I think a lot of people do stuff they’re not really into. I have the privilege of making my living out of what I love and am fascinated by.”
He walks over to the counter to slice some fruit for Billie, talking about how he gets his mind into new projects.
“Finding the good ideas and being inspired enough to make it into projects is probably the greatest challenge in photography. It’s not always easy to find enough time and focus when you have to juggle career and family. That’s why I have to spend my time wisely and be really conscious of what I want when I do it. For me, inspiration comes from my own questions and curiosity. To carry out a project I have to get this really excited feeling, igniting a spark of “I really want to do this!”. Then I just go for it.”
Bendiksen makes following your gut sound easy. But I also get a sense of the genuine bravery and humility needed to seek out the right kind of motivation to put your art and yourself out there. Especially at a time when “putting yourself out there” is something very many people do without even reflecting about it. The difference, Bendiksen believes, is still the idea behind the photos.
“It´s not a bad thing that anyone can capture beautiful moments and post five great pictures on Instagram every day. Finding good motives and publishing them has become easy with today’s technology. But the really good stories and ideas are still far apart,” he says.
The photographer is not driven by the capturing that one great picture, but rather about witnessing people and the situations unfolding when they’re living their lives. Social media is maybe more of a threat to the ability and discipline needed to hatch great photographic ideas.
“I usually say that I don´t consider myself mainly as a photographer, but more of a storyteller,” Bendiksen says. Billie’s curiosity has gotten the best of her and she wants to be free to explore the world under the kitchen table. Her father isn’t one to hold her back. We ask him how he prepares for taking the pictures.
“I actually spend a minimum of my time taking the actual photos. What keeps me up at the night isn’t what kind of pictures I have to take, but the three or four pictures I know I will have to exclude from the final cut.”
His best advice for aspiring photographers?
“First, do the stuff that interests you and not what you think you should be interested in. Second, find your own voice and don´t copy your heroes. Just be brave and creative. The rest of it is basically discipline and hard work,” Bendiksen says.
“And that’s the challenging part.”
Facts: Jonas Bendiksen
Born: September 8th, 1977, Tønsberg
Member: Magnum Photos
Books: The Last Testament, 2018
The Places We Live, 2008
The writer, Hilde Gretland Andersen, is a student at Kristiania University College and an editor in Untold Editorial, the group of students and young professionals that produce The Creative Industry Brief.