Jesus is alive. All seven of him. He lives today in the forms of Jesus of Kitwe, Jesus Matayoshi, Apollo Quiboloy, INRI Christo, Moses Hlongwane, Vissarion of Siberia and the mild-mannered, cross-dressing former MI5 spy David Shayler. Each of these men claims to be the Messiah, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, producing reams of new scripture and preaching to their respective groups of disciples and followers. For three years, the Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen was their witness, documenting them in a personal project that’s culminated in a book, The Last Testament (all except Apollo Quiboloy, the founder of the Philippines-based organisation The Kingdom of Jesus Christ, who refused to see him). Within the cream cloth and gold debossed cover are 464 gilt-edged pages of photographs, essays and probing interviews. The book also includes extracts from the Divine Seven’s scriptures laid out in two ‘Bible-like’ columns on wafer-thin paper. It is a work of devotion.
I grew up in a godless home, so maybe that’s why it’s fascinating to me.
Though Jonas is not a believer, he didn’t embark upon this project – travelling from England, Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Zambia and Japan to the Philippines – with a mission to judge or undermine the credibility of these modern-day self-proclaimed messiahs. “I grew up in a godless home,” he says. “So maybe that’s why it’s fascinating to me.” With that background it was hard to resist the urge to document these people, whose very identity is based on faith. “In a way, as a stranger to faith myself, I saw this is a golden opportunity to try to figure out what that’s all about because I can actually talk to the ‘Messiah’ himself and get some answers to questions I might have,” he says.
The project was funded through a mixture of grant money from the Norwegian organisation Fritt Ord, a private foundation that supports freedom of expression, and Jonas’ own cash. “I also got some funds from NRK, the Norwegian TV broadcaster,” says the photographer, “as we also made a documentary TV series, Messiah, to go with the project, which went out last year on the Norwegian channel NRK1 (with an English subtitled version in the pipeline).”
Though some people may question the authenticity of these self-proclaimed messiahs, Jonas remains impressed by their sincerity and refuses to rule out any of their claims – even David Shayler, who quotes the Apostle Paul to justify dressing up as his female ego, Dolores Kane: “There is neither male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
No matter what you believe, it's a fascinating subject, so we sat down with Jonas to discuss his experiences of shooting all seven self-styled prodigal sons.
How did the idea for The Last Testament come about?
“The idea has been brewing in me for a long time because I have had a lifelong fascination with religion, not having grown up with faith myself. Faith has always been a mystery to me. I’ve always enjoyed reading scriptures of various kinds because I’ve felt it gives some insight into what it’s like to believe. You only have to open any newspaper and you can see the power and influence of faith on society.”
How did you end up choosing the seven in the book?
“When I started out as a photographer in Russia in the 1990s, I read an article in a Russian newspaper about Vissarion, the Russian Jesus. He has always stuck in the back of my mind. When I felt I wanted to explore faith, I Googled him to see if he was still around and what he was up to. I found several other characters who claim to be the same thing. You can go to any mental institution in London or Oslo, or wherever, and find people who say they’re Jesus. It’s a typical thing to say in a psychotic state. So, to try to filter out that, I applied some criteria in my research: they had to be people who were already out there in the public sphere; they had to be people who were consistent over a long period of time, not just offering confused babble; and they had to be comprehensive with a worked-through theology that they had put down in scripture and made public. And have followers. Once I started applying those filters, I didn’t end up with that many more than those in the book.”
Talk us through the techniques you used to photograph them.
“The settings were fairly unique in this project, as each messiah and their communities were all set up differently. In some cases I had a lot of access, in others it was more limited. But I always work quite simply – usually I have a small camera on me, with a couple of extra lenses on my belt.
“I never become invisible, because while I'm photographing I'm also socialising, and figuring things out. But the idea is to spend enough time around them that the people I photograph get accustomed to, and maybe even a bit bored, with what I’m doing.
“When I photograph, I don't think much at all about the pictures or the photography itself. I think about that before I go, and afterwards when I'm looking through the images. But when I'm in the situation, I prefer to just act… there is a lot of instinct involved. I tried to portray each of the messiahs as closely as possible to how I think they'd like to be seen themselves.
“Of course, while I was doing this project it is impossible to get away from visually referencing iconic religious imagery. But I think that is more from the messiahs and their followers who adhere to those visuals ideals, than me forcing it upon the situation.”
So none of them felt wary of your camera, or suspicious of your motives?
“You know, most of them were not very interested in what I believed. Nobody was interested in who I was, but some are much more media aware than others. They have a whole system for people who show up with a camera: ‘Okay, tomorrow we will show you that and let’s discuss what we see the next day’. Whereas others were more, ‘Just stick around and record what you record.’ So yes, every situation, every relation with these people was quite unique.”
One thing I notice is that David Shayler’s date of birth is Christmas Eve, but he appears to have the fewest followers.
“I think the number of followers is a very, very bad metric to measure any of these claims. Apollo Quiboloy in the Philippines has six million followers, but anyone can see that David Shayler has a stronger case than him. I try not to get involved in the question of who is the most likely Messiah, but what I would say is that the number of followers is not necessarily something to go by. According to the Gospels, most people did not believe Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. Most people thought he was a hoax, a rebel, a rabble rouser with no rights to claim the messianic throne, so in a way it goes with the territory.”
Did you ever feel they were con men exploiting the public for their own personal gain and gratification?
“No, no. Listen, I’m the godless sceptic here. I’ve never been partial to throwing myself into various faiths. I’m the slave of logic and reason and I went into this with all kinds of prejudices towards each and every one of these people in terms of manipulations and self-gratification. But I have to say that after these years of being around them, each and every one of these people truly believes it. They believe this thing. I believe they are doing it for what they believe is best for us all, for mankind. If we’re talking about great manipulators of human souls for wealth and power and self-aggrandisement, there are hundreds and hundreds of examples of people who do that better than these guys.”
If a photographer wanted to do something similar, how would they?
“I always say your projects should reflect what you are interested in and passionate about. This project came about because I have had a long fascination and curiosity about faith. So, at this point in my life these were the questions in the world that I felt compelled to explore. I rarely start a project because I think it looks cool or something would make a good picture. I photograph the things that I'm interested in, things that raise questions for me.”
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