The Digital Journalist
Jonas Bendiksen
June 2007

by Ron Steinman

At 15 years old and living in Norway, taking pictures becomes important to young Jonas Bendiksen. He builds a darkroom in his parents' home and begins to develop not only his photos, but also a point of view about the kind of photos he takes then and wishes to take in the future. He has no doubt that he wants to spend his life as a photographer.

His mother is American. His father is Norwegian. From the time he is small, one of many topics around the dinner table is the Soviet Union and the members of his mother's family who live in what was then Leningrad – now St. Petersburg -- under the thumb of oppressive Communist rule. Some of the talk centers on getting the family out of the Soviet Union to safety. In the near future, this will be important to him in unexpected ways.

When 18 he goes to Bristol, England, to a school, where he takes a yearlong course in photography. He learns about the nature and the business of photojournalism. Importantly, in 1996 when at 19 he completes the course, he gains a coveted internship with Magnum Photos in London. This is where he can learn even more and where he can hone his skills. Because of his budding ability, he is promoted to an associate at Magnum in 2006, a rare step for someone so young.

In 1998, only 21, Jonas Bendiksen travels to what is no longer the Soviet Union. It is now Russia, or what people call the FSU – the former Soviet Union -- the country his family talked about so frequently at his home in Norway. As a photojournalist, he starts to do what he believes is his mission. Over the next two years, he would take pictures, in his words, "outside the main story of the day." He wants to document people and their actions, actions and people that are different from what we see in the daily newspapers, magazines and, today, online.

He saw his role as a documentary photographer early in his development. He wanted to operate in the realm of ideas, rather than that of hard news where other photojournalists take a different approach to what they see through the lens of their cameras. Living in Russia for two years and concentrating on isolated communities off the beaten path, he was able to fulfill his early dream. He worked in what he called "the enclaves that were springing up in the cracks of the FSU." That meant he spent time in places that no longer existed the way they once were and where people were struggling for an identity. Thus his first book, "Satellites," the result of seven years' effort, which describes the work he does. He says he did not set out to publish the project as a book, but the book found him, a natural progression.

Over the years, his photos have appeared many places, including National Geographic magazine, GEO, Newsweek and The Paris Review. He says that 90 percent of what he does are projects he generates himself. Since 2005 he has been working on a undertaking he calls "The Places We Live." Jonas Bendiksen says it is "about the growth of urban slums across the world. In 2007, the world's urban population for the first time will overtake the world's rural population. At almost exactly the same time, the number of people living in urban slums is topping one billion." His project explores what that means to the people living in four different cities across the planet.

The proposed book of photos and Bendiksen's model of the installation, which I saw, will I believe have a powerful effect on the people who experience both. The concept is simple, yet complex because when done, hopefully, we will never look with contempt or pity at how people live in a slum called Dharavi in Mumbai and how people live in the Kibera slum in Nairobi. He will show us how people exist in the hilltop barrios that surround Caracas, and how they survive in the slums that are along railway tracks, drainage canals and under bridges spread out across Jakarta. Bendiksen's aim with his book and the installation is to show us the lives of the people he photographed, lives that are full of surprises.

The installation will have interconnecting rooms that will allow the visitor to travel from one site to another and 16 projectors to enhance the viewing experience. It will open at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo in the summer of 2008. Aperture will simultaneously release a book by the same name. When its stay in Oslo ends, the installation will go on the road.

In the end, not yet 30, after only 10 years in the business, Jonas Bendiksen has a fully developed philosophy of photography. In his words, "I love working on stories that get left behind in the race for daily headlines—journalistic orphans. Often, the most worthwhile and convincing images tend to lurk within the hidden, oblique stories that fly just below the radar."

And he seems to have done just that.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, Executive Editor of The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.