Sometimes half the fun of discovering a magazine is figuring out what on earth it’s all about. That’s definitely the case with the enigmatic Benji Knewman, a new title from Latvia that claims to be made by the eponymous Benji and fills its pages with personal reflections on people living endearingly normal lives.
I caught up with editor-in-chief Agnese Kleina and art director Madara Krievina to ask the obvious question: Who exactly is Benji Knewman?
So first things first: who is Benji Knewman?
Agnese: As we say in the ‘about’ section on our website, he’s a man in his 30s – it looks like he’s around 38 – and he’s mostly on the road, so that’s why we’re doing this thing for him, putting the magazine together, because he’s almost never here.
We also know that he comes from a place where people speak English, but he recently found out that his grandfather is from Latvia, so he’s learning Latvian but he’s not very good at the moment.
It’s such a complex backstory! Where did the idea come from?
Agnese: In the very beginning we had another idea on our minds – we were going to publish a magazine and each issue would be made by a different team.
But somehow this idea of an imaginary man came about, and we knew it was going to be fun. It leaves a lot of room for imagination, and for people asking us questions – as you are doing now. And also maybe we are the sort of folk who believe in imaginary friends.
I’m really interested in why you chose a man, because it’s not just that he happens to be a man. On the cover you’ve got these whiskers, and on the website you can shave the whiskers, and in the introduction Benji says his inspiration was his grandfather – it seems that his being a man is important.
Agnese: It might come in part from Edijs Vucēns, who worked with us on the concept, and is very good at coming up with names and titles. He’s a guy so he might have been bringing his manly touch. But also everybody likes a great man – if you have a cool guy everybody likes him, but if you have a cool girl, some girls might be jealous of her.
Madara: We also wanted to prove that this isn’t a women’s magazine. Because two girls are working on it, but that doesn’t define it.
You cover all sorts of different subjects, but it all holds together and I think that’s because there’s this common thread of personal relationships.
Agnese: This is the stuff we’re interested in – we both believe the micro level is what counts. On the macro level you can’t actually touch the theme or the person: if you say “Latvians,” or “English people,” it’s vast – you can’t see who those people are and so you end up with stereotypes. But when you take just one person and sit down with him or her and listen to their story, you get so much more.
That’s a common approach in independent publishing, but even within that trend Benji goes a step further. For example you interviewed the illustrators Stevie and Essy May Gee, and they let you into their home and let you take pictures of their kids (and their cat). That’s really personal!
Agnese: It is – we owe them a lot for that one. It’s true that independent journalists tend to be into the story of the individual, and I think it’s because we’re all tired of a mainstream that’s giving us orders and telling us how to do things. We will do it differently because we have our own interests – listen to us!
And then in the middle of this lovely family stuff, you’ve got an incredibly sexy photo shoot.
Agnese: Yay! She’s a friend of ours, and we went to her because we thought she could be the first to take part in this action of just being yourself. We have more ideas for photo shoots, and it doesn’t matter whether they’re naked or not, but for example we’d really like to have a couple spending a weekend together and just taking pictures of each other to get that intimacy where you’re kind of peeking through a keyhole.
Madara: It’s about loving your body. We took pictures of this girl and of course she had these worries of, “is my stomach flat enough,” and that stuff; the sort of questions we all have about whether we’re good enough. But it’s about being happy that we’re having this experience and knowing that there’s more to come in the future.
The magazine is biannual, so what can we expect to see from volume two?
Madara: We are starting to plan in early December, so we’ll see! I’m using content-driven design so we really have no idea right now what the next issue will look like. We wanted Benji to look like it’s not a totally new magazine, and that it actually has a history to it, so I did a lot of research looking at vintage magazines like The New Yorker from the 50s, and some local lifestyle magazines from the 60s and 70s that I found at my grandma’s summer house.
Agnese: I really like this feeling that we just don’t know what’s going to be in there – we have so much freedom with it. Me and Madara used to work for the biggest publishing house here in Latvia, and we always had this fear that we can’t really risk this kind of layout or put this kind of picture on the cover, and I caught myself having the same fears while making Benji in the very beginning. But we can do what we want with this one!