2022 Photo Contest, Europe, Open Format

The Book of Veles


Jonas Bendiksen

The Book of Veles was published in April 2021 as a documentary project on the production of fake news in Veles, a provincial North Macedonian town which placed itself on the world map in 2016 as an epicenter for fake news production. During the 2016 US Presidential election, some residents of Veles created hundreds of clickbait websites posing as American political news portals. As the Veles fake news articles were widely spread via Facebook and Twitter algorithms, many of these 'news hackers' made substantial sums from viewer ad clicks. While it may have been a money-making scheme for certain Veles residents, the presence of these fake websites may have contributed to the visibility of the Trump campaign and therefore inadvertently promoted the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. The book also weaves in the real story of a forged ‘ancient’ manuscript called The Book of Veles.

Six months after its publication, Bendiksen revealed the project itself was a forgery – all the people portrayed are computer-generated 3D models, and all text was written by an AI. Bendiksen acquired base characters and morphed them to create a range of characters before adding clothing and texture. The backgrounds of the images were made by photographing empty spaces in Veles, which were then converted into 3D spaces. Avatars, the computer-generated 3D models, were placed into the scene, with emotions, poses and lighting that matched the original scene.

The photographs are accompanied by a 5000 word AI-generated essay using GPT-2, a system for creating text that is trained on millions of existing websites. Bendiksen fed this system with articles from English-language media about the fake news industry in Veles as well as real quotes from people who had been involved in fake news production - then selected text from the output.

The impact of this project asks us to question the ease at which fake news can be produced, circulated and believed.

Jonas Bendiksen
About the photographer

Jonas Bendiksen (1977) began his career at the age of 19 as an intern at Magnum Photos’ London office, before leaving for Russia to pursue his own work as a photographer.  Throughout the several years he spent there, Bendiksen photographed themes from the fringes of the former Soviet Union–a pr...

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Jury comment

The Book of Veles is a fresh, conceptual project on a highly relevant topic. The photographer consistently maintains a strong narrative throughout the project and intelligently portrays what it means to be living in an age of disinformation. The use of an innovative technique combined with symbolism and irony adds meaning throughout the body of work and makes a bold political commentary. Furthermore, the photographer addresses the moral authority of his own photographic work and presents a form of meta-analysis – using photography as a tool to comment on the state of photography and highlight how vulnerable we are to fake influences in a shifting industry.