by Eline Benjaminsen


© Magnum | Jonas Bendiksen

Hi Jonas! You’re a Magnum member and long-time contributor to National Geographic, among others. How did your interest in photography start out?

Jonas Bendiksen (JB): I was 14 to 15 years old, toying around with a camera I found in my fathers’ cupboard. I mostly took photos of friends and the place around where I was living. I got so enamored with it that I asked my father if we could build a darkroom together. And so I basically moved in to one of the bathrooms of my family’s house. I got really fascinated by the process - all the chemicals and magic, it’s like alchemy. It took over more and more of my time and focus. I started bringing a camera everywhere and photographing everything. I started looking up photography books at the library and got inspired by all kinds of people. In the beginning I looked at everything I came across, but I had a preference for documentary from early on. I got really fascinated by books by for example Leonard Freed - who’s one of the more underrated magnum photographers, and Joseph Koudelka who’s work really hit me in the belly. The likes of Salgado and Cartier-Bresson… My parents collected National Geographic, the way so many families used to do before; rows on rows of yellow in the basement. So after school I’d dig into their collection, and would be sitting around just being absolutely fascinated by this sort of act of looking at the world… it really had a big impact on me. 

I feel like I never actually made the decision to become a photographer. By the time I was 18 and high school was finishing, and everyone was finding out what they wanted to do, I sat with the question of what to do now - invent something new for me to do or just keep doing this thing that I’ve been doing all this time and that is taking up all my attention? So I kind of just continued doing what I was already doing.

How did your practice evolve from there?

JB: I went to England when I was 19 years old and got this internship at the Magnum office in London. My way into doing the work I do now was a kind of a strange one in a sense. Russia is really where I started as a photographer on my own. I decided to move to Siberia, thinking I was going to learn how to do photography there, and that I was going to stay for as long as it takes to make a story that made sense. So I begged various film companies for sponsorships, to give me film. Fuji gave me 500 rolls of slide film, and off I went. I got this small grant from Magnum also, that was part of the internship agreement. There was this story that I wanted to do that was connected to my family history there. My mothers’ family was Jewish immigrants in New York with roots in Russia and Ukraine. So I went to learn Russian and photography… and that put me on this long path towards this love affair that I had with the former Soviet Union. I mean, in terms of how my practice evolved… I don’t know! I kind of just threw myself into it. I learned from failing a lot, and by trying things out. 
I hadn’t thought about the fact that there were nowhere inside a 2000 km radius where you could actually develop this slide film that I’d been given. I got stuck there with nowhere to develop it for nine months, without seeing a single picture, trying to feel my way to something. I didn’t even know if I was exposing correctly. I can’t really explain it but that I didn’t see any pictures the first period of time when I was trying to make things work - I think it has somehow had a really big influence on my work. It forced me to think more and try to visualize, while also reflecting on how I was relating to people. 

© Magnum | Jonas Bendiksen

What do you think about the role of photography in the era of digital and social networking? 

JB: I’m one of the big optimists. People are walking around with photography transmitters in their pockets! I mean, it has never been that good before! You can be nostalgic about the old days, but I think if Philip Jones Griffiths and those guys, when they were working in the 60s – it would be a wet dream for them to send their images straight from the field into peoples’ pockets. 
There has never been a time when so many people at so many places are engaging with photography every single day – producing it, observing it, sharing it. How can that not be good for photography? To say anything else sounds totally crazy! Of course people use it differently now than forty years ago. But I think peoples’ literacy when it comes to photography has never been higher than it is today. People are becoming more and more visually sophisticated. Of course it’s changing the business, but those things are always evolving anyways, and you always have to be active and innovative and try to find new opportunities for how you produce your work. I think photography is proving itself to be the ideal medium for the way people consume media now, with our almost non-existent attention spans.

© Magnum | Jonas Bendiksen

Tell about your time after Russia.

JB. I kept traveling while living in New York. I got banned from Russia but wanted to keep working in the former Soviet Union, so I kept going to all the other ex-Soviet republics. I’ve always liked to chase assignments while at the same time have larger personal projects running. I like to think that I have a pretty simple relationship to photography. There is no hocus pocus around what I do, it’s pretty straightforward. 

Do you think many people have a complicated relationship to photography?

JB. Yes, I think many people torture themselves if they don’t feel that they fit into what they think they should be doing. I think you just have to find the way that works for you, and feel good about it - be honest about it. 

Any mentor, teacher or anybody else that has had an impact on how you understand your work?  

JB: I never had a mentor. It always sounds great when people have a mentor! But I’ve gone about my work in a pretty solitary way. 

© Magnum | Jonas Bendiksen

What was your process of wanting to become a member of Magnum?

JB: Like mentioned earlier, I’ve always derived a lot of inspiration from the work of many people in Magnum from a very early age. And then I was lucky enough to become an intern there for a year when I was 19. 

In 2004 I became a member. It felt like I was becoming part of a family of photographers that already had inserted a great influence and pull on me. Not to say that there isn’t a great number of photographers outside of Magnum that I love the work of, but somehow this collective played a critical role in my development as a photographer. 

Do you have any comments on how photography has been or is evolving in Norway? Is there anything you have observed in particular?

JB: I feel I’m a bit too much of an outsider commenting on this, as I spent the first decade of my working life abroad, and didn’t go through the same challenges as many of the photographers that are working here have. But what I can say is that my feeling is that Norwegian photography has been split for years between different groups; the art photographers and the photojournalists, without many crossovers. Some say it’s more imagined than real - I have no idea but it’s my impression that these different schisms have been kept in place by institutions, and have subsequently been defining photographers, creating barriers and restrictions. Not that it ever made sense to me, so I’m probably not describing it well. 

At the same time I have to say that I’ve observed a tremendous development in Norwegian photography the last years. Many are producing their own thoughtful work. I think the level of photography in Norway is sky rocketing at the moment. That on its’ own is probably breaking down these barriers. Especially I see that new work produced by young photographers cross the boundaries, so probably a natural evolution is happening. Also there are plans to create a center of photography in Oslo. That could really be the nail in the coffin for these separations. 10-15 years ago I think Norwegians who worked on their own long-term independent projects were pretty lonely. Now there is a lot of energy going on. 

© Magnum | Jonas Bendiksen

About your work now - how would you describe your practice at the moment?

JB: I don’t actually think too much about photography – what really makes me engaged in something is when it’s a good story. I never think, “I want to go there, because that will be a great picture”, I think “wow, that’s a great idea because it’s a great story”. That’s the part of photography that engages me; the story telling. Of course single photographs can move me, but when I really get fired up about something, it’s because it’s a good story waiting to be told. I guess that’s the best answer to what my process and all is; I’m more interested in the story than the photography. I kind of believe that if you have a good idea and a good story, usually the pictures get good. Very often when people struggle to make good pictures it’s because they don’t have a good story.

Do you have any motivation for how you wish your work to be perceived?

JB. I want to be part of the public discussion. What I hope is that seeing my work will inspire discussion and reflection, and invite people to pose questions on society. There probably aren´t any single images of mine that will change the world - but all of this is cumulative.

Have you ever consider doing anything else?

JB: Yeah - it took me a while to learn that your creative life goes up and down. You have periods of great inspiration and energy, and you have periods without it. You have to deal with these things somehow, and that’s what being a so-called professional is – that you can deal with your own psyche. There’s been many times where I felt at the bottom of that curve and that I was repeating myself, but then I’ve always found some new flame that makes me inspired again. And then I’m back in love with the whole thing. 

Photographing has somehow become my way of dealing with things, if I’m curious about something, I go to photograph it to gain an understanding. It’s part of my fiber. I can maybe imagine stopping to work as a photographer, but not to stop using it to understand how the world runs. That’s way more terrifying.  

© Magnum | Jonas Bendiksen

Do you have any preferences in terms of cameras and format? 

JB: Nah. I mean, whatever makes for good story telling is the right way to do it. I look at all those things just as dialects for storytelling. At the end of the day it’s about being articulate in your dialect. As long as you’re articulate, it’s good to look at.

What’s your dialect?

JB: Simple photography. Uncomplicated photography. But that isn’t to say that it can’t be a beautiful thing to look at work by somebody who’s really articulate in a really complex and craftsmanship demanding dialect. I think you have to be articulate for each particular story that you’re trying to tell as much as with any poem you’re trying to recite. Things have to match up. Working on an 8x10 camera in a really slow way, three frames a day, is equally valid to instagramming the heck out of something – but it doesn’t mean that they should mix. When you know what you want to communicate, usually you’ll find the right form. The other way around can often become a disaster, claiming a style without knowing what you want to say. 

Is there any contemporary artist or photographer that influenced you in any way recently? 

JB: There are probably a lot of them; they are sneaking their way into my vocabulary without me knowing it. I’m influenced by so many things, and have a hard time pin-pointing this or that person, except for the people that I discovered photography through. I’m probably equally influenced by things outside of photography like literature, journalism, personal experiences and encounters. These things I can imagine have more influence on me than looking at pictures, but it’s all cumulative, isn’t it?

I can’t just breath photography all day long - I need other things too. In a way one of my greatest sources of inspiration is not thinking about photography. If my entire emotional life depended on photography, I’d go mad. 

© Magnum | Jonas Bendiksen

Three books of photography that you recommend? 

JB: I want to point out Lars Tunbjörk who just passed away. He was a terrific photographer, I’ve always greatly admired him. Actually I want to mention all of his books; ‘Office’, ‘Home’, ‘Winter’…

A classic is ‘Telex Iran’ by Gilles Peres.

‘Interrogations’ by Donald Weber is a very thought provoking book.  

Is there any show you’ve seen recently that you found inspiring? 

JB: I’m dying to see Tom Sandberg at Kunstnernes Hus. He’s a Norwegian photographer that I discovered very young. I was always enamored by his work – his diffuse, ambiguous pictures, repetions… very alluring somehow. 

Are you working on any projects at the moment?

JB: I always like talking about pictures that I’ve taken, not pictures that I’m going to take. But what I can say is that I’m currently working on a really fascinating personal project in which I’m very engaged in and that I don’t know how long is going to take to finish. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and I’m in a period where I’m feeling very inspired.

© Magnum | Jonas Bendiksen

Any plans for the upcoming future?

JB: Well, I’m having a baby this fall, so that will impact me pretty severely. That’s my main plan for the future now. What can impact your life more? I became a father quite young in my career, and at first I was greatly worried when at 23-24 years old I was becoming a father. I worried it would destroy my work. However it didn’t take me long to figure out that a lot of what might be good in my work is because of that process. It forced me to grow up and mature and to think in such a different way that I think it directly translates into the better work that I’ve done. So I think that embracing those kinds of things in life is fuel for my work.


Jonas Beldiksen