Behind the Scenes of Newsweek's "Bible Thumpers" Cover

Photograph by The Voorhes

How do you conceptualize religious persecution? How do you capture violence, silence and fear in a single photo? Those were the questions Newsweek's creative team asked themselves when tasked with creating a striking image for the June 1, 2018 cover story of Newsweek International, Marc Bennetts's expose of the discrimination faced by Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia.

Creative Director Michael Goesele wanted a visual that was “as jarring and graphic” as their situation. In July 2016, President Vladmir Putin signed a law that made it illegal to share religious beliefs outside of state-registered places of worship. In 2017, Russia’s Supreme Court declared the Jehovah’s Witness denomination an “extremist organization.” Since then, increasing numbers of Jehovah’s Witnesses have been thrown in prison—simply for practicing their faith.

Goesele turned to photographers Adam Voorhes and Robin Finlay, to brainstorm. One detail stood out to them in the story: The Russian government banned the Jehovah's Witness translation of the Christian Bible, which replaces the words “God” and  “Lord” with “Jehovah.” The team wondered, “How do you create a visual that represents the ban of the holy scripture, of a religious text?” The answer became the cover: The claw of a bear, representing Russia, tearing through the cover of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures—the Jehovah's Witness Bible.

jehovah's cover for web story Photograph by The Voorhes

Voorhes and Finlay, known professionally as The Voorhes, executed the idea in their Austin, Texas studio. They etched scratches on the book's surface, then placed it beneath the claw of a full-sized, stuffed bear, rented from a local taxidermy shop, hauled to their studio on the back of their camera assistant's flatbed truck. According to Voorhes, "Nick drove across town with constant cell phone snaps being taken of him the whole way. But that's business as usual. And it wasn't our first bear either! We jump through all kinds of hoops to make images happen."

This is the Voorhes' sixth cover for Newsweek, and they say it was comparatively low-stress. The only tricky part was snapping a shot while keeping the book poised behind the animal's claw. "Because the paw was facing down, I was working upside down," Voorhes said. "We ended up building a platform for the bear out of wooden boxes and scrap wood to get the right angle."

Finally, the words “New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures” were added digitally in post.  “Hopefully, it's an image that will stop people when they’re walking home, make them do a double take and make them want to know more,” concluded Goesele. 

It did. The issue became one of Newsweek's best-selling of the year, internationally. Newsweek often creates different covers for the domestic and international magazines, and while the Russia story ran in both issues, American newsstands and subscribers received a cover featuring Bernie Sanders. 

Sanders cover for web Photograph by Christopher Lane

As it turned out, many U.S. residents also wanted copies of the bear-claw cover, making it a best-seller online as well. (Issues can be ordered at Magdogs Marketplace.)

Check out these behind-the-scenes photos of the making of the cover, rented bear and all. 

01_IMG_2004B Courtesy of The Voorhes

02_IMG_1987B Courtesy of The Voorhes

03_IMG_1988B Courtesy of The Voorhes

04_IMG_1990B Courtesy of The Voorhes

Newsweek_JWs Photograph by The Voorhes