It’s hard not to sympathize with the photo editors at the JTA Wire Service.
How, after all, would you illustrate an article whose headline is “Pew survey: 57 percent of U.S. Jews eat pork and Torah study rises in popularity”?
We probably would try to put together an image of a pig more than half but less than two-thirds filled with Jewish stars — which probably is why no one is trying to hire us to be their photo editor. Because who has time to put together a barnyard graph on deadline?
Still, the stock photo from Shutterstock that JTA actually did send raises more questions than it answers.
This would not be an unreasonable photo, perhaps, to illustrate the generic concept of Jews. But we like to think that JTA subscribers, like our Jewish Standard readers, no matter how deep or how loose their connection to religious practice and organized Jewish communal life, already know what Jews look like. We venture to guess that far more than 57 percent of them recognize a Jew whenever they look in the mirror.
So let’s look at these specific Jews. Or maybe “Jews.” Because this picture gives off the aura of stock photo desperation. That is to say, a photograph taken with the hope that once it is uploaded to a stock photo site, it would be found and bought by someone searching for a keyword (in this case, “Jewish”), putting a few bucks into the photographer’s pocket.
Let’s look at the photo in the context of JTA’s caption: “The percentage of Jews who said religion is important to them rose from 31 to 35 percent since 2007, the Pew Research Center found.”
It seems to us that 33 percent of the people in this picture actually weren’t born in 2007. And why is the child looking so pensive while the candle is being lit? Is he contemplating the deep unfairness of life? Because really, is it fair that even though sometimes the few overpower the many, as they do in the Chanukah story, at other times even the most earnest pleadings can’t prevail upon the grownups to let a big boy light candles all by himself?
And speaking of grownups: Are the two men illustrating a statistic about the acceptance of gay marriage, as we thought in our office? Or does this reflect three generations, as a JTA editor maintained, which raises the question of what happened to all the women? Is Pew predicting a demographic future without women? Or at least without pictures of women distributed by Jewish news agencies appealing to a growing Orthodox demographic?
And what’s with the challah? Is it Friday night? Then the picture is from 2009 — the last time the eighth night of Chanukah coincided with Shabbat. The story is strangely silent about 2009. But why isn’t the challah covered with a cloth? Where is the second challah? Where is wine for the kiddush? Why, for that matter, is one man — but not the other — wearing a tallit? At night? While lighting candles? While we’ve never heard of someone wearing a tallit during a home ritual at night, doesn’t Chanukah raise the added issue of fire hazard?
Then again, maybe the picture does serve its intended purpose. Like when we see a burning candle in a room with a child, like when we’re confronted with a detailed demographic statistic with a slightly alarming headline, we just can’t pull our eyes away. Isn’t that the definition of a great illustration?