Jonas Bendiksen photographs the modern-day men who claim to be the Messiah

You’d be forgiven for exclaiming “Christ on a bike!” scrolling through photographer Jonas Bendiksen’s new book, which really does appear to show Christ on a bike, or at least a little scooter. The rider is one of seven men around the world who claim to be the biblical Messiah, returned to earth just as the New Testament’s penultimate verse, “Surely I am coming back soon,” prophesied.

The Last Testament by Jonas Bendiksen. © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

Around three years ago Bendiksen decided to track down these seven men, visiting England, Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Zambia, Japan and the Philippines to photograph the men who each believe they are the Chosen One.

The resulting images initially appear to be rather humorous: we see a blingy hand-studded Jesus baseball cap, pious young women carefully drawing the curtains around an ageing robed gent, a Last Supper-like tableau of men enjoying a large mostly beige buffet. But there’s also something slightly unnerving and surreal in the images, feelings that become all the more powerful as you learn that some of these men have amassed thousands of followers of their own. Many use Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to communicate their revelations to today’s digitally focused Christians;  others though are “true underdogs,” says Magnum.

“While my story is about these Messiah claimants, my overriding theme is the mechanics of religion itself,” says Norwegian-born photographer  Bendiksen. “My aim is to use this project to open a debate about faith. Is there anything stranger to dedicating your life to following a Siberian real-life Messiah than following the missives of an infallible pope? Or might Jesus of Kitwe, Zambia be just as likely a persona as a resurrected Christ?”

The Last Testament by Jonas Bendiksen. © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

Jesus of Kitwe’s image is a particularly poignant one, showing his arm hanging out of the window of the beaten up taxi he makes his living in, “Lord of Lords” painted on its rear door as if to broadcast his Messianic status. Other images paint a picture of hilarious and baffling decadence: we see South African Moses Hlongwane, otherwise known simply as Jesus, dressed in a gold outfit and white gloves, giving a sermon during his wedding to Angel, one of his disciples, as a little girls sleeps.

“Personal religious belief is one of the few arenas of society that is still politically incorrect to debate critically,” says Bendiksen. “I wish to  encourage reflection and discussion through the telling of a unique and entertaining story.”

We spoke to Bendiksen about how such a vast and globetrotting project came about, and how meeting these many Messiahs shaped his own beliefs and spirituality.

The Last Testament by Jonas Bendiksen. © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

CR: Why did you decide to embark on such an unusual and ambitious project?

JB: I guess I’ve had this urge to sort of explore faith and religion itself for years. I was actively working on the project for three years, but it it all started way before that.

You can open any newspaper on any given day and see the impact and influence of faith and religion on society, and for me not having grown up with religion – I come from a secular home – that’s always been a bit of a mystery to me. I’ve always been a very sort of concrete guy, in the sense that my life has always been dominated by things I can touch and feel, by science and evidence and that kind of stuff. So when I got the chance to actually meet “Jesus himself”, and ask questions, and touch and feel, it was an unmissable opportunity.

CR: How did you go about finding your Messiahs?

JB: I started my career as a photographer in Russia in the late 90s, and heard about the Siberian Messiah then. When I started to Google to see if he was still around, I found there were other people who claimed to be the same as him. I felt it was a way to explore what faith feels like, and think “what if this is true? What if he’s really the Messiah? What if these claims are true? What would the world look like? What would the implications be for mankind?”

That’s the book in a nutshell: a thought experiment to explore why these claims are any less believable than other things we place belief in.

The Last Testament by Jonas Bendiksen. © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

CR: How easy was it to track down the others?

JB: I started Googling my way through local newspapers from the whole world. Some are easier to find as they have YouTube channels and have a sort of officialdom, but with others like Moses, who was the first Messiah I went to visit, the only information I had was a small report from a local paper. I went down there with a friend from South Africa to see if this guy really is who he who he claims to be and we were received with open arms. So in some cases it was much more uncharted territory than others.

CR: Were they wary of you as a photographer, and someone asking questions about their claims?

JB: It was different for each of them. In the case of Moses of South Africa we even shared a bed, as there was no other place to stay, and that was right at the start of the project. We were forced to be very close as the rest of the house was filled with disciples.

In other cases things were more controlled and we had a more formalised interaction. Overall I was received very warmly and very openly. The thing is, these people really want their story to be told so for them it’s intrinsically important to get their message out as they truly believe they have a very important and unique mission on behalf of us all and mankind, and it’s important to spread the gospel.

One surprising thing was that it never happened once that any one of these people asked me what I believe, or at the end as to how I saw them. They were very uninterested in who I was or where exactly this story would go, they just saw it as “he wants to tell the story and that’s a good thing as the story needs to be told in every way possible.”

The Last Testament by Jonas Bendiksen. © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

CR: Did their responses surprise you?

JB: I found these communities were a lot more open-minded and flexible than my prejudices would have dictated. People have tendency to assume they’re closed societies, with an “either you’re with us or against us, our way or the highway” attitude and that they’d be very sensitive about whether people follow their beliefs to the core, but I found the opposite.

They were very open and quite relaxed about people coming in and out of disciplehood, so some people who maybe were disciples were very committed but also led normal lives and there doesn’t seem to have been any issues. My host family in Siberia for instance, both daughters were grown up and moved to other big cities and weren’t in the faith are more, but they were spoken of very lovingly and everyone seemed very relaxed. It goes against the grain of what you might expect.

CR: I suppose a lot of people might conflate these sort of beliefs with more sinister “cult” arrangements.

JB: People use words like “sect” or “cult” but they’re not words I’d use – they’re very different to faith or religion. And who’s to say the claims of these people are any less plausible than those of lots of people? For me, that was impossible to identify. I guess also the question I continually had to ask myself in the project was “is any of this any less plausible than mainstream faith and dogma?”

The Last Testament by Jonas Bendiksen. © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

CR: There’s a section in the book where you meet David Shalier the Christ, a man in his early 50s from Middlesborough, and pose to him that “some people say you’ve gone mental.” Did that concern you with anyone you met, that they might be quite seriously unwell?

JB: I continually asked myself that, but time and time again when I asked that aloud people would answer for themselves in a way that was perhaps very logical and relaxed. It made me question how people think they can easily define what madness is, and what’s just belief in faith. People had very logical reasoning for their claims, which held at least as much water as “normal” faith.

They countered those gut reactions in most cases very well and made me think about where faith separates from delusion. Obviously I think any psychiatrist would have had lots of things to say about each and every one of these guys, but it makes me wonder about if you teleported a psychiatrist from today into Galilee in the year 30 and had them look at Jesus… what would they have made of that? In the gospels it says that even his family tried to hush him as they thought he was mental.

Obviously I’m aware you can go into any mental institution and find people who claim to be God or Jesus, but when I started I set myself a few criteria: they had to already be in the public domain with these claims, and have had a consistent revelation of being Jesus, and have been living in a consistent way after that for a long period of time. In most cases people had had these claims for decades, and had a consistency with it and were already out there in the media and preaching publicly like that. Setting those criteria meant the list got very much shorter.

CR: Some of the Messiahs you met had assembled a faithful contingent of disciples and followers around them, were you ever worried about other people being exploited?

JB: My antennas were out from the start. I can’t answer 100% for what goes on everywhere, as I was a passerby who saw things in brief periods of time, but these communities were very different to what I expected and these disciples were very different. Take Inri Cristo [the Brazilian man who claims to be Jesus Christ reincarnated], who lives with female disciples. People think all sorts of things, even though they have a strict vow of celibacy. When I asked him about it, he just said, “when I was here before, look what happened. I had these 12 guys and they betrayed me and they ran away and they were basically useless. It was the women who were loyal and stuck with me when I was hanging on the cross.”

I’m a sceptical guy but I didn’t pick up that sort of power play: they were articulate, intelligent women who were really just like other church communities – they were there for the same reasons. There were other disciples who left and they didn’t speak badly of them.

The Last Testament by Jonas Bendiksen. © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

CR: How did the experience of making the book and meeting these people shape your own faith and spirituality?

JB: Even though I see [faith] as a nice thing, I can’t just on willpower alone escape my own restrictions, in a way. I can’t throw myself into faith where I have no firm proof. I’m a slave to scientific method and I can’t just escape that.

That’s why this process and work has been so fascinating and magical for me, as I’ve had a chance to taste what that complete faith feels like, and it is a beautiful thing. When I walk out on the street I see the mechanics of nature at work, and logic, and cause and consequence.

Any meaning in life I have to create on my own with the people around me, but these disciples see signs from God in everything. It’s a magical world – it’s a world infused with cosmic meaning, not just human meaning that I can create in my own life through relationships and caring for those around me.

These people have a cosmic meaning and feel that their presence here has direct consequences for the universe. It’s been wonderful to sample that.

If something changed for me, it’s not my own belief but how I’ve always operated on the premise that no matter what the situation is, one of the most fundamental questions is “is it true?” I guess I’ve been very humbled now: is it really the most important thing to think about if it’s true? Is it really so important whether Moses over in South Africa is the Messiah or not?

The Last Testament by Jonas Bendiksen is published on 4 September 2017 by Aperture/GOST priced £40

The Last Testament by Jonas Bendiksen. © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos