The photographic elite gathered in Perpignan, France, on September 1 at the annual Visa Pour L’Image photojournalism festival. That night, the outdoor screen shimmered with images of people using laptops in Soviet-era apartments and a bear strolling past rundown industrial sites. They came from The Book of Veles by Jonas Bendiksen, an award-winning documentary photographer who had traveled to North Macedonia, which had been home to a vibrant fake news industry during the 2016 US election. As his peers gazed at his work, Bendiksen watched from the bleachers with increasing discomfort.
Two weeks later, a Twitter account bearing the name Chloe Miskin tagged Bendiksen in a tweet accusing him of fraud. She claimed to be from Veles and declared “the whole project is a joke” because he had paid locals $50 to pose for his photos. An hour later, UK filmmaker Benjamin Chesterton, a frequent critic of the photography industry, retweeted the allegations.
Then Chesterton noticed that one of Miskin’s Twitter followers was wearing the same unusual pink sweater as a woman pictured in front of a snack kiosk in The Book of Veles. That fueled his own suspicions. “I imagine any minute now Jonas will reveal that the people in the images are computer generated as a 'clever' 'take' on fake news,” Chesterton tweeted—words Bendiksen read with a surge of relief.
In fact, Bendiksen had created the people in the images with software. The next day, the prestigious cooperative Magnum Photo posted an interview in which Bendiksen revealed that although he had traveled to Veles, every person and bear in his images was digitally faked using 3D models like those used to make video games. He also revealed that the book’s introduction, describing his travels, had been generated with artificial intelligence software. Miskin, too, was fake—created by Bendiksen to trigger his own exposure.
He had embarked on the caper to spark a conversation in photography about the growing power of deceptive technology. His ability to fool some of the craft’s elite portends trouble as tools for manipulating imagery and information become more widely available. “It’s scary that the most visually sophisticated people on the planet fell for this,” Bendiksen told WIRED. “Where's the threshold for fooling people who are not so visually literate?”
Bendiksen is an unlikely photo frauduster. His 2006 breakthrough book Satellites documented years exploring decaying former Soviet republics. He’s since won international awards and membership in Magnum, where he served for a time as president. In 2018 he started reading up on the fake news hub in Veles, in the post-Yugoslavian country of North Macedonia, and spiraled down the rabbit hole.
Bendiksen, like many people, felt the 2016 election had revealed some uncomfortable truths about facts in the digital age. Visiting Veles, a once communist city like those he had photographed before, could provide a way to offer his own perspective on fake news. Searching online, he discovered the city had associations that could add conceptual dressing: A Slavic god of trickery named Veles features in an archaeological text called The Book of Veles, now believed to be a 20th-century forgery.
The city of Veles also posed challenges. Its fake news industry had been gutted by tech company purges, so finding people to photograph could be difficult. Then Bendiksen wondered if advances he’d read about in synthetic imagery could fake the fake news makers well enough to fool his peers. “I was so scared of what the answer might be that I thought ‘I have to try it,’” he says.
When Bendiksen traveled to Veles in 2019 and 2020, his jitters about the project were tempered with an odd sense of liberation. “Normally you would spend most of your time trying to meet people,” he says. “This was much easier; I had no intention of meeting anyone.” As he toured shabby streets and factories, he also pursued himself, trying to imagine what images typical of his own work would satisfy people’s expectations. At each location where he took a photo, he also used a pocket-size 360-degree camera to capture the lighting so he could later re-create it with fake people.
As coronavirus lockdowns gripped Europe, Bendiksen settled into his home studio in Norway and started faking. He downloaded 3D models often used in video game or movie production to assemble a cast of unreal people, animals, and objects. He carefully posed his characters to match each scene, and mimicked the lighting he had captured on location.
When he showed a few early images to fellow photographers and picture editors, “nobody caught it,” Bendiksen says. His approach had more in common with conventional photo manipulation and Hollywood special effects than with deepfake imagery, generated with machine learning, which has spurred concerns about a new wave of trickery.
As Bendiksen gained confidence, he crafted scenes that toyed with tropes of his own work and documentary photography more broadly. Blocky Soviet-era buildings hide pale women and stocky men making fake news amidst jumbles of outdated computer equipment. Elsewhere, guards in peaked caps with guns stand behind barbed wire, and a woman leans over a car window in a dark, red-hued alley. He also tried to leave plenty of clues. “I put in lots of bread crumbs, hints that there's something wrong here,” he says. One potential giveaway: the bears that seemingly overrun Veles, population 43,000, strolling past industrial sites and a sign for the Norwegian embassy. The animals are a favored form of the trickster god Veles.
For the book’s introduction, Bendiksen turned to a different form of fakery. He collected reporting on Veles from publications including The New York Times, BBC, and WIRED and used it to tune open source text-generation software called GPT-2. By experimenting with different prompts, he generated fragments that fabricated meetings with fake news producers in Veles, quotes from locals, and—naturally—encounters with bears. He assembled them into a patchwork that is human- as well as machine-made, but Bendiksen says, “I didn't write a single word of that text.”
Bendiksen’s Book of Veles was published in May and opens with that unreal essay. It includes more than 50 of his composite images interspersed with computer-generated quotes and reprints of scholarly analysis of the forged Book of Veles. The work’s true—untruthful—nature was known to only a handful of people at Magnum and Gost, Bendiksen’s publisher. Both publicized the book with conventional announcements.
LFI magazine, a glossy magazine owned by camera maker Leica, devoted a full page to the book in its August/September issue, featuring a handful of images and calling it “intelligent and entertaining” if also “an uncomfortable lesson in the harmful potential of digital disinformation.” During a July promotion, Magnum offered prints of a shot in which a flock of birds rushes past a drab apartment building with a man silhouetted in one window for $100.
Bendiksen would usually place a package of photos from a new project in a major newspaper or magazine. This time he turned down inquiring editors, wanting to focus his trick on the photo industry, not the wider public. But he promoted the book and posted images on social media, expecting it wouldn’t be long before someone called them out for looking unreal—or question what bears were doing roving a North Macedonian city. “Instead I just got a bunch of thumbs up and applause,” he says, and even messages praising the reporting in his machine-generated opening essay. “That's when I realized we collectively are in trouble,” Bendiksen says. “I didn’t know how long this would take or how far it could go.” He began to plot his own downfall.
Bendiksen aimed to sabotage himself on one of photography’s most prestigious stages, the Visa Pour L’Image festival, which takes place in Perpignan each summer. He had submitted the book for consideration early in 2021 and been surprised when it was selected to be presented on stage via a short video of his images. His preparations for the event included buying a ticket to France, and paying roughly $40 for a pre-aged fake Facebook profile in the name Chloe Miskin.
Fittingly, Miskin’s account came with the hard-to-verify promise that her profile photo was generated by AI. Bendiksen spent weeks curating her account to resemble an enthusiastic freelance photographer from North Macedonia. He sent friend requests to hundreds of people in the photo business; many reciprocated, including museum curators and magazine photographers.
When Bendiksen got to Perpignan, his duplicity weighed on him. “I was sick to my stomach, but I felt I had to document that the screening actually took place,” he says. He avoided the whirl of networking, dining alone and hiding out in his hotel room to avoid meeting anyone he knew. The night of his screening, he arrived early and took a seat high in the bleachers, trying to hide behind his face mask. When the Veles video rolled, a sequence of his bear images soon swam into view. “My heart jumped a beat,” Bendiksen says. “I thought the bears were the weakest link.”
Bendiksen launched his attack on himself the next day, back home in Norway, aiming for the truth to emerge before the festival’s main program ended a few days later. He logged into Miskin’s Facebook account and wrote a post accusing himself of paying subjects to pose fraudulently, declaring “His project is the real fake news!!"
To Bendiksen’s alarm, the post didn’t gain much traction. He reposted the allegations in a private photography Facebook group, sparking a discussion in which participants largely accepted Miskin’s claims, but found little wrong with paying subjects in photos. His planned self-immolation in tatters, Bendiksen spent days frantically building a Twitter presence for Miskin, ultimately attracting the eagle eye of Chesterton, the UK filmmaker who at last called out the project. “It was a big weight off my shoulders,” Bendiksen says.
He called Magnum’s CEO, Caitlin Hughes, who like almost everybody else with the agency had been kept in the dark. She was standing on a drizzly London street on a night out with her husband when she learned that the company had published a book, and sold prints, that were faked. “I did know he was working on something secretive, but I wasn’t expecting this,” she says, “It really shakes the firmament of documentary photography.” The next day, Magnum posted the interview in which Bendiksen came clean, alerting the wider world of photography.
Jean-François Leroy, longtime director of Visa Pour L’Image, learned his prestigious festival had been punked when Bendiksen emailed a link to the interview. The revelation left a sour taste. “We knew Jonas for years and trusted him,” says Leroy, who says he was “trapped.” The festival sometimes asks photographers to see raw, unedited images, but did not ask Bendiksen, whose work had been featured in the past. “I think Jonas should have told me it was a fake,” Leroy says, allowing the festival to make a feature out of disclosing and discussing the stunt and its implications.
Others taken in by Bendiksen’s project have warmer feelings. Julian Montague, an artist and graphic designer in Buffalo, New York, saw Bendiksen post a link to the Magnum interview on Facebook and read with interest. He’d bought the book earlier in the year, out of interest in the concept of a fake news industry, and the aesthetics of the former eastern bloc. Bendiksen’s images, grainy and with moody lighting, had struck him as artful, not artifice. Now they felt different—in a way that enhanced his experience rather than leaving him feeling cheated. “It’s interesting to revisit the photographs with that knowledge,” he says. “I admire it as an experiment and piece of art and agree with him that it portends a scary future.”
Chesterton, who triggered Bendiksen’s reveal, calls the project “magnificent,” but for different reasons. He sees its primary value not as an indicator of the growing power of synthetic imagery, but as a spotlight on the foibles of the photography industry.
Chesterton often uses his tweets and company blog to highlight instances of fraud and questionable ethics in documentary photography. “The industry will put it down to CGI and computers and stage a debate about that,” he says. “They won’t bring up that if you want to cheat in photojournalism you can, and you’re unstoppable because there are no checks and balances.”
Bendiksen, who says he will return with relief to his previous truthful practices, hopes to spur conversation. “I think I scared a lot of people just like I scared myself,” he says. “Hopefully this is a little bit of shock therapy that gets us talking about this,” he says.
Magnum is still deciding whether or how to contact people who bought the book or prints to inform them that they didn’t exactly get what they paid for. The agency still offers The Book of Veles for sale, but it has not updated its listing to disclose the truth of the project. Gost’s listing doesn’t either, but subtly links to coverage of the stunt. A spokesperson for LFI said the magazine’s editors were discussing how to disclose that the item it published in June about the book didn’t tell the full story.
Bendiksen, too, won’t reveal all. All the people are fake, he says, but so are some animals, cars, and other objects. “All I can say is there’s something fishy in every image,” he says. “I don’t want to take the joy out of the hunt.”