Image from “What Does a Jew Look Like?”
One of the many portraits from “What Does a Jew Look Like?”

Imagine you are a newspaper photo editor. In the past, only a minority of stories needed accompanying images, but now that almost all are posted online, every story has to have at least one. You are under constant pressure to get content published before the competition.

Today you have a problem. You need to find a picture for an article about a rise in antisemitism in British universities. The story isn’t based around one particular event or place, so you can’t send a photographer to the site. It needs to be live within an hour. What do you do? Fortunately, your newspaper subscribes to Getty Images, an extensive online photo library. You type “antisemitism” or “Jew” into the search box and you find the perfect image: two men, wearing black hats and black coats, sporting black beards, seen from the back, walking away, mysterious.

This kind of scenario plays out all the time. A few years ago, a story about antisemitism in the Oxford University Labour Club was illustrated with a photo of strictly Orthodox (Haredi) Jewish men, taken from the back. The problem was that Haredi Jews very rarely attend university; indeed, in some sections of that community, to do so could bring shame on one’s family. On that occasion, the image was changed after complaints from readers. But stock photos of Haredi men taken from the back are ubiquitous in UK media to illustrate any and all stories about Jews.

It would be easy to blame this on antisemitism. It is certainly true that antisemitic cartoons often feature caricatures of black-hatted, sidelocked and bearded Haredi Jews. But there are more prosaic reasons why publications reach for these stock photos so frequently: Haredi dress is an unambiguous, widely-recognised visual signifier. And in the competition for clicks there is often little room for images that don’t immediately signify. This also happens with other groups. Stories about Muslims are often illustrated with a particular kind of Muslim – usually south Asian, veiled if female, bearded if male. More generally, there is a preference for the most visually distinctive members of any ethnic, national or religious group.

Is this necessarily a problem? Are stereotypical images harmful in and of themselves? These are more difficult questions than they might seem. The fact is, Haredi Jews are the fastest-growing sector of the Jewish population (in the UK, growing at nearly 5 per cent per year) and black hats, black coats and beards are the norm for adult males. And there are millions of South Asian Muslim women who wear veils and other head coverings. But while these are significant groups, the exclusive use of their images might eclipse the existence of other kinds of Jews and Muslims. And on top of this, as Michel Foucault argued, “visibility is a trap”. Haredi Jews are the most visually identifiable Jews and, as such, they are often subject to scrutiny that can be intrusive and prurient.

Are visual stereotypes unavoidable?

When Jews appear in the public sphere, it is too often as visually recognisable Orthodox Jews, or as Israelis (soldiers and settlers in particular) or as famous secular Jews (David Baddiel, Howard Jacobson, Alexei Sayle and so on). I am none of these things, nor are most British Jews. I am affiliated to the Reform Jewish movement via my synagogue and my life is an entangled web of Jewish practices (both “religious” and “secular”) and other practices that are no different than those of many other liberally minded, middle-class Londoners. When the public’s visual image of the Jewish people is confined to just a few basic types, the existence of Jews like me is erased.

So is the existence of Jewish people who aren’t at all religious. While the boundary between secular and religious is often blurred in the Jewish world, it is certainly true that over a million Israelis and an untold number of diaspora Jews define themselves as secular or non-religious in some way, even if many might still be connected to some forms of Jewish practice for cultural and familial reasons. Also erased are Jews (unlike me) who do not trace their ancestry back to East and Central Europe; it is hardly surprising that Jews are considered to be “white” when those from Middle Eastern origins, for example, are rarely visually represented in the media.

The lack of a visual stereotype for a Reform Jew or for a Tunisian Jew means that, de facto, we are assumed to be covered by the limited range of stereotypes that do exist. It can be frustrating, particularly when you are lumped in with those whose values you do not share. Similarly, liberal or secular Muslims are often forced to “explain themselves” in an environment that all too frequently treats “Muslim” as synonymous with “fundamentalist”. At the same time, I do recognise that Haredi Jews and Jews like myself are both part of the Jewish people and there are risks of distancing myself from them too completely. I have no wish to abandon Haredi Jews to exoticisation or prejudice. There is another problem as well: not “looking Jewish” may cause a certain suspicion amongst antisemites. Non-Orthodox practising Jews like me are sometimes accused of providing subterranean cover for the fundamentalists.

Creating an alternative

Yet it is much easier to point out the problem with stereotypes than to find a solution. If every online story has to be illustrated these days, what kind of images of Jews and Muslims will be simultaneously instantly recognisable, attractive and non-stereotypical? Photos of synagogues or Jewish ritual objects might serve as alternatives to photographs of people, but they too are subject to stereotyping and, besides, they may come across as static in a fast-paced online news environment.

My own attempt has been to collaborate with a photographer to create a more diverse set of images of Jews, across the spectrum of both religiosity and secularity. The photographer Rob Stothard actually took the most famous stock photo of Jews (Haredi men, photographed from the back) in 2015, for Getty Images. He later became frustrated by how frequently it was used. Our book What Does a Jew Look Like? offers a broader set of images, many of which defy easy stereotypes. For example, one Orthodox woman portrayed in the book is an artist, while an apparently secular punk musician feels unexpected ties to religious practice.

The intention was not to provide an alternative set of stock photos, but to question the very idea of stock photos in the first place. Portraits – particularly when accompanied with a personal narrative, as is the case in our book – remind us of the indivisible uniqueness of each human being, and how this intersects in complex ways with group identities and affiliations. In this sense, Rob and I offer no solution at all to the visual stereotyping problem.

However, we might find a way ahead by thinking about which social categories carry a visual stereotype and which do not. What would happen if a newspaper needed to illustrate a story about the town of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire? I am not aware of a widely shared Mansfield stereotype. Getty Images is no help: type in “Mansfield” and you mostly get photos of a grain storage facility in Mansfield, Ohio. If there was a murder in Mansfield, a picture of flowers placed on the site of the killing would work. If there was a corruption scandal, then a picture of the accused. Whatever the story, you’d have to get a photographer to go there.

Maybe there is a certain freedom in being a Mansfielder that a Jew or a Muslim doesn’t have: the freedom to be a visual blank in the public imagination. For those Jews who don’t signify as culturally or religiously Jewish, or those who (like me) are conflated with others who signify more strongly, all we can do is to complicate things. I have every sympathy with the photo editor, but I also want to make their life even more difficult.

What Does a Jew Look Like? by Rob Stothard and Keith Kahn-Harris is published by Five Leaves Books.

This piece is from the New Humanist autumn 2022 edition. Subscribe here.