The False Truth
On Jonas Bendiksen’s “The Book of Veles,” the concept of truth and overcoming the importance of photojournalism
Veles is a town in North Macedonia that news reports indicate as the epicenter of political fake news production, particularly in 2016. In an economic and industrial crisis, the inhabitants of the city — which has 40,000 of them — ingeniously set out to produce something different: fake news, distributed on news websites that often had names reminiscent of other official ones, chosen on purpose to deceive and overcome the meshes of uncontrolled and viral distribution.
The story at this point might already be journalistically interesting, but instead is full of further ramifications and stories, like a complicated Chinese box.
Why is Bendiksen’s work called The Book of Veles? It is a photographic book but the name comes from another Book of Veles, a text dating back to 1919. It is based on 40 inscribed plates found by an officer in Russia, written in a proto-Slavic language. They deal with the history of the Slavic peoples and their god Veles. But this text was then considered a historical forgery and now downgraded to something without documentary value.
A historically false text that gives the title to a photo book (which includes excerpts from the book that inspired it, to further muddy the waters) about a city whose economy is based on producing falsehoods or semi-truths.
I incredulously heard Bendiksen himself tell this story in a Twitter Space. There were a handful of us listening to him and it’s a shame because never before has his reflection been as timely as it is now. It was April 1, just a few days ago. Bendiksen himself said that on that same day World Press Photo had withdrawn the prize he had received because they had discovered that his Book of Veles doesn’t contain manipulated or fake photos but just “100% ordinary photographs”. Of course, the World Press Photo Prize cancellation was not true: it was still the first of April after all.
Bendiksen also said something else far more poignant on that occasion: he said that photography (or perhaps he was talking, more precisely, about photojournalism) no longer interested him. Photojournalism for him was now a marginal part of a larger communication mechanism.
To recap: a photographer tells a job on a city where fake news is produced and calls it like a book whose historical basis is considered false and produces photos that are, in turn, false because they are manipulated with the insertion of 3D characters in post production. He himself tells of how he actually went to Veles but shot only empty spaces that he then “animated” by inserting people who did not exist in reality.
In short, his book is based on three levels of falsification, or rather: on three different manifestations of falsehood. The current and informative one, the historical one and finally the documentary one, that is the outcome of his editorial work.
This story reminded me of a short passage from Baricco’s The Game. He was talking about fake news and wrote something that is often overlooked: all fake news is not entirely false but always contains an element of truth. Something plausible or verifiable, even if polluted by falsehoods and alterations, must exist, otherwise no one would believe that a news story, however far-fetched, has a semblance of plausibility.
Every story must appear to be true; it doesn’t have to be.
Every story, after all, is told and therefore altered in origin. It is always based on the perspective of the narrating self and the more times it is repeated, the more it is loaded with details and interpretations that are distant from the fact it describes.
The intellectual appeal of Bendiksen’s operation is that the alteration of truth is elevated to the cube: it is not a tale about the production of falsehoods but it is a falsified tale that cites a false historical text and contains as its only element of truth the existence of this city in North Macedonia.
Which does indeed exist (I checked it) and which has risen to prominence precisely because of this peculiar local product of it: that of fake news.
The feeling one is left with, however, is that Bendiksen’s insight translates into a much more powerful cultural operation than it seems at first glance. It is not a joke, it is not a provocation, and when he speaks of overcoming photojournalism as a historical testimony, he elevates his work to a different dimension: that of a work of art.
The Book of Veles is in fact an artistic performance (and, in saying that, I don’t want to limit its scope or circumscribe it to a sphere other than that of current events and history): as a work of art — but I should say “of Art” — he actually elevates it to a different temporal domain. His work does not describe the present but the future. It imagines it and shows it. A future where the levels of alteration of truths are multiple and where plausible truths come from different temporal spaces (The Book of Veles from the past, Bendiksen’s Book of Veles from the present). Where finally, indeed, Truth does not exist because there is only the tale, the word, the identification in a story.
It is curious that the most powerful communication tool ever invented by man is the story, the tale. And it continues to be so, and perhaps it will be forever.
In short, people do not believe in Truth, but only in stories. And we should never disregard this when we say that something is true: something is not really true in itself but only the plausibility that is attributed to it is true. In short, we want to believe that something is true, while it might be not true and does not have to be like that at all.
Stories are true or believed as true, Truth is not.