Portrait of Frum Girl in Shul Wins International Photography Award


chayla-in-shul-photoBy Maya Benton

This week the National Portrait Gallery in London announced the winners of one of the world’s most prestigious portrait photography awards. Among the usual intimate family portraits, eerie shots of twins, dystopic depictions of urban poverty and suburban malaise, portraits of political officials – including a particularly unsettling close-up of Silvio Berlusconi – and politically engaged photographs of the victims and survivors of war-torn communities, is an image of a young, frum girl.

The photograph, “Chayla in Shul,” won this year’s John Kobal New Work Award, given each year to a promising photographer under age 30. Laura Pannack, a British photographer and graduate of London’s esteemed Central Saint Martins College of Art, was awarded the £4,000 ($6,250) prize and a prestigious commission to photograph a member of the U.K. film industry for the National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection.

Culled from more than 4,000 international submissions by roughly 1,800 photographers, 59 portraits were chosen by the judges to be included in this year’s exhibition, which draws more than 200,000 people to the National Portrait Gallery each year. The show opened Thursday and runs through February 22.

I spoke with Pannack just after the award was announced to learn more about the image that nabbed this year’s prize. Five years ago Pannack, who describes herself as a “cultural Jew,” moved to the Stamford Hill district of North-East London, an area heavily populated by frum Jews that has been subject of attacks and media criticism in recent years. Pannack did not know much about the “very closed, very modest community” she encountered when she moved to the neighborhood and quickly decided she would undertake a photographic project documenting her new neighbors.

Unsure how to best approach the project, she spent many months getting to know the families, working in the schools and with the women’s and children’s groups as they slowly invited her into their world. The result is an ongoing series (working title: Purity), documenting the lives and experiences of Jewish women living in Stamford Hill.

The photographer describes Chayla, the 11-year-old subject of her winning photograph, as extremely shy and introverted, very mature and extremely intelligent. Although the majority of the photographs in the Purity series are taken in people’s homes, Chayla is pictured in the women’s section of the shul led by her father.

When Chayla, the second-oldest of 11 siblings – and, until recently, the only girl – was told that her portrait had won this prestigious award and would be prominently displayed in the National Portrait Gallery, she was embarrassed; she doesn’t like to be the center of attention.

Pannack is among a significant number of contemporary photographers who are drawing inspiration from the Old Masters and bringing painterly qualities to the gelatin silver surface.

Unfamiliar with the chareidi community before she began photographing women in Stamford Hill, she observed that “some of the traditions and rituals have really surprised me; their lives are fascinating, and it’s an endlessly interesting project with tons to learn about. You never get to the end, it would take an entire lifetime to unravel and understand.” Pannack says she had witnessed “a lot of beautiful relationships and very strong women in these communities,” which she hopes to communicate in her photographs.

“Chayla in Shul” will occupy a prominent, public exhibition space in the center of London over the next few months, and Pannack hopes that those who view her photographs will gain a “positive perception of Jewish people and of the community.”

The selection of this image is even more impressive given the context of seemingly endless reports of mounting anti-Semitic violence throughout Europe-particularly in Paris and the U.K., and especially against those most easily identified as Jews by their dress and outward observance. It’s refreshing that this portrait of a thoughtful, young Orthodox Jewish girl was awarded such a prestigious prize and will be prominently displayed in the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square.

Excepted from the November 14, 2014 email of Tablet Magazine.

{Matzav.com Newscenter}


  1. To #s 1&2
    Did you know almost 50% of the world are women? Are we supposed to forget the 50% that Hashem has created?
    Shame on you and all that think alike. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

  2. Stop obsessing already! It’s a very tzniyusdig, aidel picture of an ehrliche young girl. Keep in mind that she is younger-looking than her age (which is also below bas-mitzva).

  3. Tell the next 11 year old you see in the street she’s a breach in tzniyus.. Stop worrying about this narishkeight . Worry about the real problems in klal yisroel.
    Shame on you both

  4. A breach of tznius, more like a Kiddush Hashem. She is not dressed, or posed inappropriately. Now, for a little while, when people think of Orthodox Jewish women, they will not think of oppressed women in black. They will think of a young girl, enjoying her father’s shul. Mr. Anonymous Time, pick your battles.

  5. Did “Chayla” and her parents agree to have her photo spread far and wide in the general media? Seems doubtful. How about the secular Jews being respectful of modesty while they gather information?


  7. Art in all it’s genres resonates sensitive and too delicate to the one who is able to receive .

    So what subtle hint .. does the art exhibit wish to portray?

  8. Yasher koach Matzav for posting the pix and the article. IMO, more pics of very tznius girls and women should be posted to teach and encourage young ladies the proper way to dress b’tznius.

  9. What makes this a good picture? Most of us wouldn’t even print such a picture. We’d say it’s out of focus, she isn’t smiling etc. If anyone can explain please do so. thank you

  10. #20. I guess you would make a very poor photographer. The Mona Lisa isn’t smiling either…if you ever heard of the Mona Lisa…probably the most famous picture in the entire world.(wasn’t aware that only smiley pictures are worth developing, guess the shops would be out business by now, had that been the case)
    Most of us would print such a picture, because most of us have more style and creativity than your, should I say, uncreative simple mind. Sorry, nothing personal. You just don’t have what it takes…camera wise. Sure you have some wonderful talents of your own. This one ain’t one of them.

  11. I do not agree with all the art comments and why not show the world and statistics of how many women…….
    But i do believe in Halacha. And I live my life with halacha. And I do believe that tznius should be an integral part of a website like this. And therefor I have to say that Since Al pi Halacha it is absolutely ok for an under bas mitzva age girl to do things like that; there isn’t even a question of kol isha with a girl under bas mitzva. Then why in the world should this be a question??? We don’t have to demand anyone to be frumer than halacha; if you;d like to then be frumer but there’s no demand for that. But just one question I have to those that have an issue with this non issue; what in the world are you doing on the net?

  12. Please, those that think women shouldn’t be seen nor heard are just plain fanatics. This has nothing to do with Torah Judaism. It seems we are now living in a world where there are only extremes; total immorality or extreme overboard fanaticism and has nothing to do with being a Torah observant Jew. The world of G-Dless liberalism brought all the insanities out. Does normalcy still exist? Hope so.
    In fact, this photo is a beautiful one showing the tznius and refinement of this young lady, which should be an example for the rest of Jewish girls/ladies to emulate.