If you had asked photographer Jonas Bendiksen four years ago if he ever thought he would meet Jesus, he might have given you a quizzical look. The award-winning documentarian from Norway is a self-described “skeptic,” known for his ethereal images of abandoned technology in Central Asia in Satellites (Aperture, 2006), and his epic visual exploration of people and homes around the world in The Places We Live (Aperture, 2008). The premise of his new project is a departure from the secular: Bendiksen embeds himself in the lives and communities of men who claim to be the Second Coming of Christ. That’s right—men, plural: Bendiksen encounters six of these modern day Jesuses.
They are worth introducing here: Inri Christo, from Brazil, had his first awakening as Christ in 1979. Jesus of Kitwe, Zambia, was twenty-four when he received his revelation, and it turned his life upside down. Former M15 agent and whistleblower David Shayler has been fighting the forces of evil as Jesus in northeast England since 2007. Jesus Matayoshi has his own political party in Japan, which bases its policies on Matayoshi’s identity as Christ reborn. Moses Hlongwane, the Messiah of South Africa, has about thirty disciples. Vissarion, the Christ of Siberia, had his first revelations as the Soviet Union was unraveling around him, and his Church of the Latest Testament has attracted hundreds of followers since the 1990s. Bendiksen spent three years following each of these Messiahs and their communities—and emerged with intimate portraits of people of abiding faith.
Bendiksen compiled his images, the writings of the six Jesuses, and narratives of his own experience into a 400-plus-page book called The Last Testament (Aperture, 2017). Though it would be easy to approach this material with tongue planted in cheek, the resulting work is not an exposé or a parody: Bendiksen takes each of his subject’s claims at face value, and approaches them with generosity. It is designed to be as immersive an experience as Bendiksen’s own in getting to know his six subjects. I was curious about every aspect of this project: Where do you find six people who claim to be Jesus? How do you approach them and their disciples? How do they approach you? And most of all, how does someone who grew up in what he calls a “godless” home end up in a years-long pilgrimage, and with what results? The following interview ranges from the practical to the theological, the ridiculous to the sublime, and back again. And every step along the way is surprising.
—Brook Wilensky-Lanford for Guernica
Guernica: I want to get your sense of how this project relates to your previous work. You’ve said that you want to look at enclaves, places where people are living in isolation, right?
Jonas Bendiksen: At the end of the day, a lot of my work tends to revolve around people on the outside of something, someone on the periphery. This idea of faith and religion and belief is something that has been a mystery to me, that I’ve always been curious about. I’ve always enjoyed reading religious texts, although I didn’t grow up with faith myself. I grew up in a rather godless home, you could say. But you open a newspaper, and you can see the power and influence of faith on society. It’s important for people to have it. And that’s why it’s this fascinating mystery to me, which I wanted to somehow touch and feel and put a face to and try to relate to—what is this thing called faith? What it is like? What can you believe in?
Guernica: It’s interesting to me that you mention that you grew up in what you call a “godless household.” Coming from an American context, although I and many of the people I knew grew up without religion, it’s less common to say that you grew up godless. And it’s even more unusual to hear someone say they grew up in a godless home but still enjoyed reading scripture! Did you feel that faith was an absence in your life, or just that you were looking at the world and wanting to answer a question?
Jonas Bendiksen: I don’t think it came out of longing, this project. It’s more like looking at all the faith that is out there—I’m continuously meeting people who have this thing in their lives, and in a way it’s been like this chasm that’s made me wonder—because I’ve never felt that I myself have a lack of meaning in my life, okay? I have so much meaning in my life! But generally, I have to create myself. I have to find myself, and it derives from the role I play for other people, the people I love and what they are to me and my society, and that’s how I construct a meaningful life. Whereas people whom I’ve met who have real faith, they, per definition in a way, have more meaning in life. You know, when I walk out in the street, I see forces of nature at play, and I see cause and consequence, and science, and this kind of normal stuff. They see, or can see, signs from God, or proof of a cosmic level of meaning, that the universe and the Lord has a personal interest in their lives, or that they have some sort of cosmic role to play. We actually view the whole universe in two quite completely different ways. You can think of it as a small thing or as a really, really big thing. I wanted to try to understand what it’s like to be that other guy who has that sense of cosmic meaning, that closeness to the creator. I somehow needed to grapple with that profound difference.
Guernica: How did you find, or select, these six men?
Jonas Bendiksen: I basically found all of these people the same way you find anything these days—which is through Google! But the whole truth: When I started out as a photographer, I actually started out in Russia when I was nineteen, twenty years old. I was living and working as a freelancer both in Siberia and Moscow, and I remember reading then in some Russian newspaper about Vissarion, and although I never went to see him at that point, this idea that he was out there really stuck in my mind. And this was in the mid- to late ’90s. He’d already set out his community and he was attracting followers, and so he’s been someone who, in the back of my mind, is a fascinating character. And when this urge I had to touch and feel and explore faith was growing to overpower me—and that’s often when I start a project, when this kind of curiosity overpowers me and I can do nothing else but pursue it—I started to see if he was still around and still making the same claims, and if his community was still there. And in that process of searching him out, I came across a couple of the other [Jesuses], and then the ball started rolling, and I sort of fell into the hole, you could say.
Guernica: And you took three years to do this project?
Jonas Bendiksen: Yeah.
Guernica: Were there additional Jesuses whom you spent time with but didn’t end up including, or were these six really your focus?
Jonas Bendiksen: I have bonded with a few other people who, for whatever reasons, didn’t work out. I had to set myself certain criteria, because you can walk into any mental institution in Oslo or New York and find people who say they’re Jesus. They’re a common thing: people in a state of psychosis or some delusion. And so the idea was that the people I went to see had to be people who were already out there in the public sphere with these claims, had a consistent revelation and track record. Most of these people have claimed to be the messiah for at least a decade, or even several decades. They had to be people who have a comprehensive theology that is put forth in a system, in scripture, and they had to be people who kind of make sense, in that theological sense. And most of them have groups of followers. So once you apply those filters, there’s not actually many more that I was able to find. There are thousands of gurus or prophets out there, but actual fulfillment of the Biblical prophecy of the Second Coming, not so much.
Guernica: Along with that notion, of fulfilling the Biblical prophecy of the return of Christ, there’s usually a kind of exclusiveness—the idea is that there’s only going to be one return of Christ. The individuals whom you got to know and photographed, were they aware of other people making this claim? Did that ever become a problem?
Jonas Bendiksen: I was quite curious about that, about how they would react to the fact that I was interested in some of the others. Some would say, “Oh, it’s a really good thing that you’ve gone and visited some of the other ones,” because it says in the scripture, in Matthew in particular, that “before me there will be many false messiahs,” many false Christs. “So if the other guys weren’t out there doing their false Christ thing, I couldn’t have fulfilled the prophecy of being the real Messiah.” So I think in general they see the others as part of the fulfillment of the prophecy. And also by seeing the false path of these other ones, it becomes apparent that they are of course the true path. They have a fairly relaxed approach to the other ones. I mean—“They might be mistaken about their exact identity… But they might have had some communication with God as well, on a lower level. By all means let them do their thing.” That kind of thing. They were much more relaxed than one might think.
Guernica:That’s refreshing. Religion as it’s often covered in the newspaper tends to be more exclusivist, and instead, this project is warm and welcoming and even humorous. I’m thinking of Inri Christo, who has been photographed riding a scooter around his Brasilia compound, whose disciples produce YouTube videos covering pop songs, and who generally seems to have a more lighthearted attitude than one might expect.
Jonas Bendiksen: Yeah, many people react in different ways to the humor, and of course that was a bit of a knife’s edge, because there are many situations here that can make you smile, and make me smile, and even make them smile. The disciples of Inri Chisto, they have a whole outreach program to youth of the world where they rerecord music videos of Britney Spears and Spice Girls and rewrite the lyrics to promote Inri and the message. They sing and dance and put that on YouTube, and it’s sweet and funny. They say, “We know we’re not singers, but we feel compelled to do this, and if the fact that it’s funny makes people open their eyes to the message then it’s a wonderful thing.” The idea is that humor—why shouldn’t that be in the tool kit of God communicating with humanity? It’s a very effective communication strategy.
Guernica: Absolutely. I noticed that, as you said, most of these men have at least some followers, and photographically, that’s an interesting choice, because it lets you see not just this individual but the people who see this individual, and what it reflects for them. What kind of interactions did you have with these followers that surprised you?
Jonas Bendiksen: My journey to each of these people was also an exploration of the community created around the messiah; that’s a very important part of who they are. I’ll tell you one thing which surprised me greatly. In all of these encounters, not once was I asked, either by one of the messiahs or by one of the disciples, what I believed. Nobody put the pressure on me: “Well, now we’ve shown you. Now you tell me what you really think.” I was prepared for that question, of course, and I would have thought that would be really natural to be asked. I would be there for a week, and we got very close in many cases, and I kind of expected people to be curious. But no one asked me.
Guernica: That is really surprising. What do you attribute that to?
Jonas Bendiksen: I think they saw it as a good thing that I came, because they see it as important that this new gospel reaches the rest of the world, and I might be a useful piece of that puzzle. But I think that people look at these communities and they often think, “Oh, you know, that’s a sect, right? That’s a cult,” or something like that. (By the way, those are words that I don’t use at all because they are the words that you use to pull the carpet out from under some faith you don’t adhere to yourself and make it invalid.) People tend to thinkl either you’re completely in, or you’re completely out of it. If you’re a disciple once and you leave, then you’ll be an outcast, and you can never come back. But in these cases it seems so much more flexible than that. In the innermost of these villages in Siberia, where Vissarion himself lives, you can only move around as an outsider with special permission, etc. But my host family there, a couple in their late fifties, they had grown children that had both left the community. Had left their faith, you could say, moved to the big city ten hours away and lived there with new families. And they would talk to each other on the phone every other day. You could see that there was so much warmth and love; they were discussing the next time the daughters would visit. I saw several other people who had moved away come by to visit, and it was all hugs and kisses. It didn’t seem like these lines were so firm that you couldn’t cross them. These communities were much more open-minded than people would expect, and maybe more than I myself expected before going into it.
Guernica: In your career you have done really interesting different kinds of presentations of your photographs: interactive exhibits, and a project in Haiti where you sent the Polaroid cameras to people to document themselves. What about this project really said it needed to be a book to you, and what did you want readers to get out of the book experience?
Jonas Bendiksen: I mean, all the messiahs are involved in scripture. It’s called The Last Testament because all of these guys create their own scripture, and in some cases they call it the “last testament” themselves, or the “third and final testament,” or something like that. The idea is this new revelation is to complement the first two chapters of the story which we well know. In a way, I’m just following the template they’ve already set for their story, which is to place it in that context. And taking at face value what they claim their message really is, which is the third and final statement.
Guernica: It does seem like the photographs are very personal. It’s almost like a record in real time of your intimate experience with the Jesuses.
Jonas Bendiksen: You could say that. I mean, these three years have been probably the most magical time in my life thus far. It’s with sadness that I’m now talking about it as this project that has come to fruition and been sent out into the world, because it means that it’s finished for me in a way. My time with the messiahs and the disciples has been so mind-bending and thought-provoking and indeed magical, you know? I’ve had very powerful moments of experience in each of these places. This work has moved me in a way I didn’t expect when I started. You know, maybe I started it more as an intellectual exercise, and it became something very powerful emotionally.
Guernica: Do you feel that it’s changed the way that you see, in that cosmic way?
Jonas Bendiksen: Do you mean has it changed what I believe?
Guernica: Maybe. Does it help you bridge that chasm that you talked about, between the intellect and emotion, or belief and not belief? Do you think differently about that space?
Jonas Bendiksen: Yeah, a little bit. I don’t think that it’s changed necessarily the architecture of me. I don’t know what it would take to change me from being a skeptic… It’s not that I’m an atheist. I hate that word. I’m a guy who believes things that I feel I’m presented good evidence for. Thus far, maybe that’s not happened, but if somebody came with conclusive evidence that there’s a God and that I should believe in it, then of course I’d go and believe in one, obviously. If somebody showed me next month better evidence that it wasn’t that God but the other one, then obviously I’ll change my mind. It’s not a big deal. So this project has not changed me as a skeptic. I can’t, on willpower alone, escape my own slavish reliance on what I would call proof. But what has changed is that, before I started this journey, I had always been one of these guys who is dead sure that no matter what the situation, one of the absolutely key questions to get to the bottom of is whether something is true or not: Is he a messiah or not? Is Vissarion our messiah, or isn’t he? I guess, now, that I’ve become humbled before that question. I can no longer say for sure that that is always so important a question. Maybe it’s not the right question to ask. For some of these messiahs, being the messiah for their disciples brings meaning to their lives, and, in many cases, has created a lot of beauty. Has created a positive society. A lot of things that, one could say, the rest of society could do with a lot more of. Does it really matter whether he is the son of God or not? I don’t necessarily have the answer to that. But I’m certainly much more for humility before that question.
Guernica: I like that thought. What you’ve seen is evidence of a certain kind, right? But it’s not the evidence of what you were expecting. Is there one moment that you would think about sharing with me that sums up that experience? I know that’s an unfair question with regards to three years of your life.
Jonas Bendiksen: While I was in Japan, I went on a slight detour from my time with Jesus Matayoshi, the Japanese politician, and I went to visit Jesus’s grave, which is in north Japan. That’s another long story that demands a lot of explanation because it diverges quite a bit from Sunday school teachings! But anyways, there’s a village in Japan where they claim that Jesus is actually buried. That he was actually never crucified, he escaped to Japan, and he died there at the age of 106, and his descendants apparently live in this place. And you can believe that or not; it’s beside the point. Anyway, I’m standing there by Jesus’s grave in Japan, in this tree-lined grove, and it’s very beautiful. Nobody shows up there, but on Sunday, one family shows up, an American family from a nearby Air Force base who are touring the country, and it turns out they are true evangelical American Christians, raised in faith. And the mother gets up to Jesus’s grave, and she’s shaking, she’s really feeling something. I get to talking to her and I start asking what she thinks about the Second Coming of Christ, and if that could be Jesus Matayoshi. And she’s absolutely sure that he’s not the one. And I ask her what she expects of the Second Coming, and she says, “When he comes, and if I’m in my pajamas and the Lord comes for my soul, then He will take my soul up to heaven and my pajamas will just fall to the ground, and everyone will wonder what’s happened to you, and then you’re chosen.” That’s how it’s happening: her soul would rise to heaven and she would meet her long lost-relatives.
And it really got me thinking, because her description of this—it involves Jesus, he would come in the clouds and the trumpets would sound and it would be a very epic thing—is a very graphic and precise description, a specific image of what the Second Coming would look like, down to the smallest detail. It makes you ask: Is that description of the pajamas and the soul rising up, is it per definition more plausible than the claims of any of the messiahs I met? The image that she’s promoting is a fairly mainstream conception of what the Second Coming will be like. She’s certainly not the only one who thinks of it in that sense. Through these three years, I haven’t been able to isolate what exactly it would be that makes these claims less plausible than any of the other things that people believe throughout the world. And where exactly does the boundary lie between faith and delusion or insanity? I can’t find that point. And who is to decide that this way of believing something is completely madness and this set of beliefs is something that we all applaud at society’s table? So that’s one moment that’s stuck with me.
If I were to take another one: I went to Siberia three times before I was able to meet Vissarion. He’s not someone who walks around on the street. You have to go through all his disciples. You have to have a special audience. And I was really curious about what that would feel like. What would it be like to be in a room with the messiah, with Vissarion? I had just one hour to talk to him. And there was one point when I just said that to him: “I’m really just curious to see what it would be like in a room with you.” And he takes my hand in his, and we sit like that for a long time, just holding hands with closed eyes. It might have been a minute. It might have been two minutes. I don’t know. Just focusing on him. I have to say, that was a powerful moment for me that I will never forget. It was full of energy and radiance in some way. Now, what exactly was that? If I want Vissarion to be divine, I would certainly have felt it then, I would have felt it strongly. Could it be that it is just that he’s a majestic, impressive person that has all these thousands of people orienting their lives toward him, and all this energy? I don’t normally sit and hold strangers’ hands with my eyes closed! If I reached out to you and held your hand for two minutes of silence I would have certainly feel something too, because it’s such an unusual situation, and was it just that? Who knows? But I could say, for sure, that it was truly a special moment for me. Holding the messiah’s hand.