Do these photos look real to you? Your answer could be cause for concern. And that’s terrifying.

North Macedonia. 2020. Veles.  Aquapark on the outskirts of Veles. (Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos)
North Macedonia. 2020. Veles. Aquapark on the outskirts of Veles. (Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos)

Photographer Jonas Bendiksen’s newest book, ”The Book of Veles” (Gost, 2021), raises some really tough questions. At its most basic level, it asks us to contemplate how we know when something is real or fake. But its most important question may be, do we even care? “The Book of Veles” is fascinating, beautiful, heartbreaking and, ultimately, terrifying.

The question of veracity that underpins the book is a multifaceted one. Bendiksen has worked in journalism his whole career. In many ways, his reputation is tied to the sense that the work he presents is anchored in reality.

In “Veles,” Bendiksen has used that reputation to turn all of the tables in the photojournalism world upside down and inside out. Bendiksen’s new book is a fabrication. It’s fake. Interestingly enough, this is fully intentional — to prove a point that has become incredibly urgent right now.

In short, Bendiksen used artificial intelligence along with youtube and internet research to help him create fake people that he could insert into photos that he took in Veles, North Macedonia. It’s both fascinating and terrifying to read about. But it’s certainly not surprising — we’ve been hearing about deepfake videos, as an example, for a while now. For all we know, this has been happening with regularity. We know that Bendiksen’s “Veles” is fake only because he told us.

His effort proved embarrassingly effective. Many people in photojournalism swallowed his conceit — hook, line and sinker. Bendiksen pulled the wool over his own colleagues’ eyes, even at one of the most venerated photojournalism festivals in the world.

And, yes, when I first saw an announcement about the new book, my first thought was “Great, can’t wait to see it!” and not “Hmm, I wonder if it’s real?” Even looking at sample images, all I could think was: “Yep, that looks just like Bendiksen’s work to me; fascinating new book and I can’t wait to see it.”

There have always been fakers in the news business. I know it’s hard to believe, but journalists are actually just mortal beings. They have the same desires and ambitions as everyone else. And the world is full of people who let those desires and ambitions steer them into lies and fakery. It’s unfortunate, but true.

You don’t have to look far, or even all that hard, to find instances of fabrication in the news business, from Jayson Blair and his made-up articles, to the fabled fakes and alterations of National Geographic’s pyramid cover, to Newsweek’s too bright O.J. Simpson teeth.

Fakery is gripping the national political conversation in the United States, as well. It’s always been around, but it has really amped up in the last few years. If a narrative (I shudder at using that term) doesn’t fit into some neat little preconceived idea, then it is dubbed “fake news.” I don’t need to point out where this is happening because it’s so evident everywhere.

Interestingly enough, Bendiksen’s “Veles” is all about the manufacturing of “fake news,” which really seemed to start in earnest around the time of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It seems this explosion of fake news was largely fueled by our incessant use of social media.

Social media has been nearly indispensable to our lives over the last few years. It seems as if everything we do is tethered to it, from finding lost connections to buying cars — it’s all possible on the Internet. The Internet even holds out a promise that it will bring you financial spoils if you just generate enough traffic.

It was this last little bit of seduction that transformed a fairly obscure town in North Macedonia into an epicenter of “fake news.” That’s because Veles, in the center of the country, was once prosperous, but after its industry faltered and failed, it became a place racked by poverty. But creating fake news sites that capitalized on the extraordinarily contentious 2016 presidential race gave many people in town, mostly teenagers, a way to pull themselves out of dire financial straits.

Bendiksen wanted to investigate this manufacturing of fake news for himself, so he set out for North Macedonia. What he found reinforced what he had already read in articles like BuzzFeed News’s seminal report “How Teens in The Balkans Are Duping Trump Supporters With Fake News.”

As he says of Veles in the introduction to his book (which was created using AI technology, by the way) : “The largest single source of income for the town of 60,000 is from its thriving fake news industry. I was surprised to find out that the fake news industry is one of the main sources of income for the people of Veles. According to the Macedonian Ministry of Economic Development, the fake news industry generated around $2.1 billion in 2016. Fake news has a direct impact on the country’s economy.

Many articles have been written about this phenomenon. If you do an Internet search, you’ll find them all over, including this story by my Washington Post colleague Abby Ohlheiser. None of this is a secret, but that doesn’t dampen any of the danger it has caused and will cause.

Abject poverty breeds a sense of helplessness. When you feel helpless, you are prone to do all kinds of things you never would have thought possible — including lie, cheat and steal. It’s no wonder that people have turned to churning out fake news if it can be so profitable. That’s understandable. It’s also terrifying to think about.

This is precisely what Bendiksen’s book is doing, or trying to do. It is trying to terrify us, to wake us up. By creating a book of photojournalism that would not be questioned on its face by some of the most stalwart people in the business, Bendiksen is asking a very tough and necessary question — several questions really.

And he has used his own rarefied position as a highly respected and decorated person in photojournalism to make the point. I would argue that’s yet another question the work brings up: Why do we give certain people a pass when it comes to believing what they do is valuable? Is it because they have won the right awards? Is it because they are members of the right club or group of people? Bendiksen’s book seems to make those ideas sort of laughable.

If Bendiksen can make a book that his own colleagues and some of the biggest titans in the photojournalism world will believe at face value, how secure can we feel about our ability to suss out the truth? The answer to that question has very real implications for what course life on this planet will or can take.

I think the scariest question this work brings up for me is whether we care? Does truth matter? Should we question even those we believe have all the right credentials? After all, Bendiksen isn’t just some teenager in Veles using a few keystrokes to bring in a steady flow of cash.

I haven’t even gone into the technical underpinnings of how Bendiksen made such a convincing body of fake work. And that’s partly (okay, mostly) because I don’t fully understand it myself. You can read a more in-depth description here of how he created a fake body of work and duped the photo industry.

One thing is certain. When and if utter fakery becomes the norm, you won’t be able to say the warning signs weren’t there. And Bendiksen is far from the first person to raise the alarm. Americans generally agree that misinformation is a problem. Writer, photographer and educator Jorg Colberg also recently tackled manufactured reality. People are and have been talking about the perils of misinformation. I’m just a little worried that it’s not enough. And Bendiksen’s book highlights that worry.

You can find out more about “The Book of Veles” here.

Update: The first edition of “The Book of Veles” has already sold out but a second edition is now available. here.

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