Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen on documenting slums

Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen on documenting slums

By Sophie McGrath 19/02/14

Now a full member, Jonas Bendiksen’s relationship with Magnum Photos began when he was a 19-year-old intern for them. Jonas talks to Sophie McGrath about his project The Places We Live, for which he photographed slums in Kenya, India, Venezuela and Indonesia...

What is the toughest situation you face as a photographer? 

The toughest thing is keeping up your creative energy and inspiration over the long haul. You have your ups and downs in life, and that affects your appetite for going out in the world and creating work. It’s important not to lose the joy of doing photography and to always find your way back to the source of that. You find mechanisms for doing this. It could be doing something completely different: reading books, engaging with certain people – anything. For me, it’s essential to maintain that balance between photography and the rest of my life – I need the other things at least as much. 


Image: © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

Image: During a storm squall, a girl walks a long an embankment that was broken by the 2009 cyclone Aila, Sathkira District, Bangladesh, 2010, © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos.


For emerging photographers now, with the decline of traditional print, for example, is it possible to keep this balance and forge a successful career? 

It’s not an equation that adds up easily – it’s very complicated and I think it always has been. Yes, things are hard now in the business, but that always was the case.

But I’m optimistic for the future of photography, because we have a sense of freedom and ownership of our work that was never there before. You worked for one magazine and were beholden tothe 12 images you could put in; now you have so many more options in terms of getting work out. There’s never been a time when people consumed as much photography as they do now. 

How do you fund your work?

It’s a mix. Some work I just pay for myself, I’m also constantly writing grant applications, and I still do a lot of editorial work. Sometimes I do commercial work, too. Pro-actively pitching ideas and seeking out new clients is all I do! It’s really time-consuming, but it’s how people have always done business. 

I did a one-year foundation course in Bristol (at Filton College); apart from that I’m self-taught. I’ve been doing this since I was 19 but I’ve struggled a lot. I’ve had huge debt, I’ve borrowed a lot money, I’ve had a lot of credit cards – for many years I lived very frugally, but it’s paid off.


Image: © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

Image: Crows circle a statue of Lenin in front of the Supreme Soviet building. Transdniester, Moldova, 2004, © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos 


How important is making connections and networking to a photographer’s success? 

Networks are important, of course – photography is a competitive game. Whether you want to think about it commercially or not, to operate – at least to do the kind of work I do – you have to be interested in people. That’s another way of saying you have to be a good networker. You don’t have to be a maniac about it, though – it’s more about being aware of the people around you.

Being a good photographer is about reading people – working out who does what, who are the power brokers, who has which roles – whether photographing people or doing business. I’m not saying you have to have that skill – some photographers get on fine without it – but you’ll probably see that a lot of successful people are pretty good at reading people and making connections.

What’s the one piece of advice every photographer starting out would benefit from following?

Your interactions with people are better if you are yourself, a human being, more than a photographer and if people see you like this, usually the pictures become better.


Image: © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos 

Image: A little girl playing in Laxmi Chawl, a neighborhood of Dharavi, one of Mumbai's biggest and longest standing slums, India 2006, © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos


In Focus: The Places We Live

The idea for the project came after I became a father in 2002 and started wondering what the world would look like when my son was my age. 

Around the same time I discovered statistics from the UN showing the world’s urban population was about to overtake the rural, and at the same time the number of people living in slums was topping 1 billion. I realised there’s no way to understand this urbanising world without looking at these [slums]. I started photographing them in 2005 but discovered quickly that just going there and shooting in a normal documentary style wasn’t working. 

I was struck how even in the most extreme places people create enormous amounts of normalcy, and realised that’s something that wasn’t shown much. I came up with the idea of a three-dimensional project of the rooms of slum-dwellers – composed of four single images, four walls – and their stories. So I started with the concept and then I shot from 2005 to 2007, following through this formula for the interiors. 


Image: © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

Image: The hillside barrio of El Valle, Caracas, Venezuela, 2005, © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos


I paid for the first trip (to Kibera in Nairobi) myself and then started pitching and writing grant applications. After I’d started the Nairobi part and could show what I was trying to do, I pitched to National Geographic – for just one new chapter about Mumbai, so I got a few months in the field on their bill, while also doing the parts that I needed but they didn’t. Then I went to [Germany’s] Geo magazine and pitched the same for Jakarta, and then I think I paid for myself for Caracas. So I pieced it together, and then applied for more grants to get the exhibition funded and to collaborate with a museum, got a book publisher, simultaneously building the project and the show [the exhibit launched at the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo].

I used a Canon 5D. I’m a very simple photographer. I used normal lenses, though I had to buy a super wide zoom, a 17-40mm or something similar, because the rooms were so small so to fit the whole wall in I had to go out really wide. I started shooting it on medium format film because I thought I needed a certain resolution, then I ran out of film and took the 5D out to shoot the last wall. I compared the results and saw there was actually much more detail in the digital file. The 5D was the first full-frame digital camera, and it’s good for shooting inside, and in low light. I’ve been a digital photographer since 2005 – it’s different from film, but the quality is amazing. 


Image: © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos

Image: Kids playing on top of water mains, outside their neighborhood of Karet Tensin, Jakarta, Indonesia, 2007, © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos


The editing process was tough. That’s when you really make decisions about who you are as a photographer. I always see that in young photographers – so many people are good at taking a picture, but the challenge is the editing. You have to be really hard with yourself – it’s a question of huge discipline, a methodical approach, and not letting yourself fall in love with all these images before you get down to the right numbers.

Everyone has their own mental games they have to play to do to it – I have rituals, like having to have a certain kind of music and functioning in certain percentages – for example, a first cut always has to get down to 20%. For post-production, I use a Mac and edit in Expression Media – it’s the best programme, so small and so simple – and then I use Photoshop. 


Read more insights and advice from Jonas Bendiksen and other Magnum photographers in our special zine. 

For more articles, jobs and opportunities, visit out Photography hub.

All images © Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos.

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