11 September 2017

In Search of the Modern Messiah

11 September 2017 - Written by Laurence Cornet

Imagined as a sequel to the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Jonas Bendiksen's latest book features visual accounts and stories of seven men around the world who claim to be the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

© Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum Photos, spread from the book, The Last Testament

“Once, eternity ago…” The stories in Jonas Bendiksen’s latest book don’t start like usual fairy tales. Their characters live today but may have lived for ever. All of them claim to be contemporary prophets. “I didn’t grow up with faith in my life as a start, so it has always been mysterious. I have always tried to understand it without really grasping it”, Bendiksen explains. For several years, he looked for the Messiah of the 21st century, and found them on each continent - in Siberia, Zambia, Brazil, England, Japan, Philippines and South Africa - each with a few, or a group, of followers.

To differentiate them from the occasional eccentric one can cross paths with in the subway, Bendiksen applied a few filters. “I chose people who are already out in the public sphere with this claim: those who have had this revelation for a long period of time and who have a consistent message and mythology around it”, he says. Excerpts from their scripture are reproduced on Bible paper, sometimes hard to decipher - they range from philosophical to mystical, and in some cases approach economics and politics.

© Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum Photos, spread from the book, The Last Testament

An atheist himself, Bendiksen tried to understand the devotion they have for Jesus, though he didn’t find their belief especially stranger than that of traditional believers. “Ordinary faith of the supernatural, the resurrection, miracles: all of these are also quite incredible claims. How many millions of Christians believe in Jesus though? What is different?”, he wonders.

The text accompanying his photographs is associated to the recounting of his encounters, or missed encounters in the case of a Filipino guru who refused Bendiksen’s visit by fear of jeopardising his political ambitions. “It is the Ministry’s absolute decision not to grant any interview”, was the formal reply by email.

© Jonas Bendiksen / Magnum Photos - Moses Hlongwane, otherwise known simply as Jesus, on the day of his wedding to one of his disciples. South Africa, 2016

Most of them, though, were open and friendly, up to sharing their stories with the photographer and talking about love and faith. “People may think what I do is mad. I would say deciding to invade Iraq and Afghanistan is real madness”, one of them exclaims. A former MI5 agent who cut all bonds with society, David Shayler the Christ also shows up as Dolores from time to time to “get female insight into the world”, as he puts it.

This delicate notion of madness is one Bendiksen openly asked to most of the Messiahs he met. “They were pretty relaxed replying to this question. In a way, they believe in themselves in a surprisingly calm way”, Bendiksen remarks. Which only makes things more confusing.


The Last Testament by Jonas Bendiksen

Published: Aperture / GOST (English), Forlaget Press (Norwegian) in September 2017

464 pages // 142 four-colour images // 32 black and white images and illustrations // £40 / €45 / $50



Jonas Bendiksen is a Norwegian photographer and a member of Magnum Photos. His work is mainly concerned with enclaves and people living in isolated communities.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

Written by

Laurence Cornet

Reading time

3 minutes

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