On fact and fiction in photography

Two recent projects have illuminated the ways that photography can be used to confuse and manipulate. Patrick Burgoyne investigates what this might mean for the future of media

This is a story about two tales of photographic fiction. One, a whimsical, elaborate attempt to construct an alternative history; the other a cautionary tale of a dystopian future.

Scrolling through Twitter one day I was confronted by a black and white photograph of a ‘merkin-seller’. It caught my eye. Ostensibly, this was an image of a young man, taken, supposedly, in the 1860s, proudly displaying a tray of his wares. But all was not what it seemed. A few comments in, someone had posted a link to an Atlantic piece by Lawrence Weschler that revealed the whole bizarre back story. Our pubic wig retailer did not, in fact, originate from a lost photographic studio in 19th-century New York but from the imagination of ‘antiquarian avant-garde’ artist Stephen Berkman. 

Now published in the book Predicting the Past – Zohar Studios: The Lost Years, Berkman has painstakingly imagined an entire body of work purportedly belonging to one Shimmel Zohar. Through Zohar’s imagined photographs, Berkman has conjured up a fantasy of the Jewish community of Lower East Side Manhattan in the 1800s. Here we find, alongside the merkin merchant, a woman hand-knitting a condom and a chemist developing non-humorous laughing gas.  

It’s a beguiling project. You wonder at the craft of it all, the dedication rather than the deception. The second tale is rather more chilling.

Top: An aquapark on the outskirts of Veles, North Macedonia, 2020; Above: Marina, who ran several fake news sites in 2016, Veles, North Macedonia, 2020. All images © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen has been featured before in the pages of CR. His 2006 book Satellites, in which he explored the margins of the old Soviet Union, was one of the most talked-about photography projects of recent years. Unsurprising, then, that a new project, the Book of Veles, published in April this year, should attract a lot of attention. But like Zohar’s studio, Veles is playing with the viewer.