Domestic Violence Photo Essay Leads to Backlash Against Photographer


Ohio University graduate student Sara Lewkowicz recently published a disturbing and extremely controversial photo essay on domestic violence as part of Time Magazine’s LightBox series. The essay, which began as an assignment to document the stigmas associated with being an ex-convict, turned physical when the couple she had been photographing for months got into a violent fight right before her eyes.

The photo essay that resulted has caused no small amount of controversy on the internet, receiving over 1,500 comments from readers, many of which voiced their anger at the fact that Lewkowicz took pictures instead of intervening. Several of the photos show 31-year-old Shane physically assaulting his 19-year-old girlfriend Maggie while her 2-year-old daughter watched — many commenters expressed the belief that, in that situation, her camera could have been better used as a weapon.


This particular question has been raised before. War photographers have received similar criticism for decades, and The New York Post sparked nothing short of a firestorm when they published a photo of a man right before he was run over by a subway train a couple of months back. Whatever the situation, the outcry seems to be the same every time: why didn’t you put down the camera and do something to help?

Upset that her bravery was called into question, Lewkowicz responded to this question when it was posed by commenters on Fotovisura (where the essay was published in January):

I understand your feelings, and I understand why you may feel upset seeing the photographs. Allow me to clarify. I am a 5’2″ woman. I am not physically equipped to do what you are suggesting. There were two other adults there who were much larger than I am, and both individuals were too scared to do anything.

It was my phone that called 911, I had to steal it back from him in order to do so. In putting my hand in his pocket, I already risked being attacked. Thankfully, I wasn’t.

It will be my photographs that are used to put Shane in jail (and I have my own mixed feelings about that fact, as well.)

Intervening physically would have not only put me in danger, but potentially endangered Maggie and her daughter as well, as it would have made Shane angrier.

To say I should have clocked him over the head with my camera also doesn’t make sense, as I probably would have been charged with assault. According to the law, I am only allowed to attack someone if they are committing a life-threatening act of violence against another person, and I would have had to be the one proving that. This is why we call the police in a crisis situation, rather than trying to handle it ourselves. I made sure the police were called, I stayed with them and didn’t let Shane get Maggie alone with him, I surrendered my photos after being subpoenaed, I rubbed Maggie’s back while she was throwing up after the attack, and I drove her to her best friend’s house after the assault and slept on the couch in the same room as her and held her as she was crying.

I have no regrets about how I handled that situation

It’s worth noting that both the photos and essay were published with the express consent of Maggie in the hopes that they might help other people who find themselves in a similar situation. You can read the entire essay and look through all of the pictures here. But before you click though, keep in mind that some of the photos at that link are deeply disturbing.

Photographer as Witness: A Portrait of Domestic Violence [Time LightBox via Poynter]

  • harumph

    A lot of those Time commenters are just openly blaming the victim as well. In fact, overall the comments at Time blame everyone except the actual abuser. I didn’t think Time had such a human cesspool of commenters.

  • Richard

    Lewkowicz’s response is right on the money. She handled herself extremely well and the photo essay was excellent and will do plenty of good in showing people what some people put up with in their lives.

  • Rob

    I think Sara Lewkowicz did exactly the right thing. She called police, and documented the attack. I’m glad that Shane didn’t attack her as well. Some people just like to complain about everything though.

  • Samcornwell

    Excellent photo essay. Sara, you should be proud of your work.

    And BTW for what it’s worth, you did intervene; you took photos.

  • stevieh

    The one thing you’d wish for if you were a victim of this kind of attack (other than for it to stop) would be to have a photographer present to capture proof.

  • Brett

    I bet none of the people commenting would have even intervened, if they even were there.

  • Andrea Kennet

    Good for you, Sara. It is difficult to know to when to stop being the observer as a journalist and when to step in. You found the right balance. Stand up tall. You did everything right. In fact, you were brave for snagging your phone to call 911 and getting involved like you did. You should get a Pulitizer, not criticism.

  • Fred Nerks

    Armchair critics have all the answers! And I’d criticize them for reading ‘Time.’

  • JoeC

    It’s the internet – they’re everywhere, sadly.

  • Pod

    As she stated in her response, she’s a 5′ 2″ woman. Not much she could do in a situation like that, versus a larger, enraged opponent. The response was spot on – call the cops, and then document the situation. In this case, her camera was truly a weapon. No way in hell this guy can weasel his way out of things with these photos documenting his behavior.

    I’m actually really surprised there’s controversy over this specific matter.

    And yeah, a bunch of armchair ninjas from what I can see in the other commentary around the web.

  • thingwarbler

    I was impressed with the essay, but I’m even more impressed with Lewkowicz’s response here. She did everything she was supposed to do and appears to have a very clear sense of right and wrong — and the courage to make tough calls in a tough situation and continue working. I really look forward to seeing where she’ll take her career as a photo journalist.

  • Kathleen Grace

    She absolutely made the right decision to remain objective and do what she could when she could. I am also a 5’2 woman, and got right smack in front of a similar situation in public, I stepped in and got a broken nose and two black eyes for my effort, he turned on me. It’s easy for others to openly criticize but had they been in that position how many would have intervened. And how many would have suffered the consequences. Unless you are physically capable and confident of overpowering the assailant, you do not step into an argument. Hells bells, even cops are extremely cautious in domestic disputes, how on earth is a civilian expected to act.

  • tawmasa

    Just another reaction by the uneducated masses of overly politically correct (to the point of incorrect) internet heros. There has always been a struggle with a photographers ethics in situations such as this, and in this case, Lewkowicz’s response was the most responsible reaction to such a situation.

    Her reaction is exactly what anybody should of done in that situation to correctly handle it. Yet she took it to the next level and she documented it, to hopefully prevent such a thing occurring again, to help bring it to light, and to even have as evidence for the police. That’s her duty in that position.

    Imagine if Phan Thi Kim Phuc’s image of the napalm girl was met with distressed viewers complaining about the photographer not the horrible reality of the scene? And I am sure it did. People didn’t know he took her to the hospital and looked after her, and kept in contact with her and did everything in his power to help. It’s funny how people get satisfaction in commenting how they could of dealt with these situations better, I think it makes them feel better about themselves and the fact that they aren’t out there doing anything to help themselves.

    Okay I am done! :)

  • Brien

    They used to challenge war photographers in exactly the same way. Anyone entering a situation involving violence, death, pain, suffering gets their morals challenged and most people won’t or can’t put themselves in their shoes. I am glad she kept shooting and the resulting images are so disturbing that they will help so many others on all sides of the problem. I am also impressed that she called 911 and kept shooting. Her next assignment could take her to far more traditional battle zones over seas based on her calmness under stress; but I think this will be her most memorable and influencing series of her life no matter how great she becomes.

  • larryg

    It’s amazing to me how others are so quick to “offer” that someone else should just throw themselves into a violent situation. Regarless of her size, or gender, I’m impressed on how Sara kept her cool and and was able to think clearly through what had to have been a very difficult situation.

  • Mansgame

    What did they expect her to do? Get beat up her self?

  • Darren Baldwin

    These images are harrowing. Fact.

    However, it’s people’s fear that prevents them from understanding what they’re achieving. Why shouldn’t these situations be brought to public attention?

    Why? Justify why not.

    If you’re only power is to photographically document a situation with the view of highlighting something that is invariably ‘swept under the carpet’ then I have every respect for you.

    There are women, men and children who face these type of emotional and physical attacks daily throughout the world and it goes un-noticed.

    Throwing these people into prison will not solve the ‘problem’. It’s learnt behaviour. Children aren’t born violent. They learn from what they see. It’s adults who have failed them. They’ll grow and the cycle continues. Prison will not stop this type of behaviour. To be honest, I’m not sure prison solves much of anything.

    Sara Lewkowicz I have every respect.

  • Christian DeBaun

    Brave, unflinching work.

  • Guest

    I find the entire lot of these comments supporting the photographer as absolutely hypocritical from the entire lot of you all. Two months ago, I was only person on these threads supporting a new paper photographer who took images of the man who wasp used in front of a subway train just before being killed.

    Was ripped up and down every which way on the issue despite there were a good dozen people who were closer to the vic than the newspaper photographer who did nothing to help save him. You people effing make me sick.

  • Pdc

    Stupid woman

  • eraserhead12

    .. you seriously can’t grasp any distinction between those two situations?

  • Sterling

    Some think her camera should have been used as a weapon? Why not suggest beating the guy with her cell phone? What reality do some people live in?

  • duckrabbit

    Yes the distinction is the photographer on the subway probably couldn’t do anything.

  • gege

    I guess you mean Maggie?

  • Pdc

    Of course. She has two children who are literally watching this stuff happen. Then she’s moving up to alaska with the children? Those kids have no chance for a normal life. You think she would care about her kids more than to follow him up north?!?!

  • ripley

    The distinction is that the train probably wouldn’t turn around and beat the crap out of the photographer.

  • Matthew Wagg

    not knowingly at least. The train would be moving in accordance with Newtons’ laws of motion. If the photographer had have gotten down to help the guy, he would have probably pulled the photographer down as well. Train couldn’t stop for one person, there’s no way it’d stop for two. As its been said before, its all very well being an armchair critic, but faced with a stituation for real 99.9% of people would either walk or do nothing.
    At least these people did something.

  • bgrady413

    Huh? A guy willing to get a neck tattoo of his girlfriend of one months name turns out to be unstable? Shocked
    Seriously powerful stuff though, I really was moved by this essay and I gotta tell you if it were me I probably would have intervened, being I am not a 5’2″ woman but a linebacker sized guy, which would have probably stopped this sooner and landed me in jail for all the right reasons. That dirtbag would have had his head stuck in a wall when the cops showed up.
    The little girl was right there wedged between the two of them, she is the bravest of them all, god bless her for being so strong, this whole thing breaks my heart, hope the family is ok.

  • bgrady413

    She isn’t following this dirt bag, its the estranged husband she is going to live with, the actual father of the children. Try reading.

  • Matt

    I have a friend that intervened when a guy was beating his girlfriend at a gas station. He is a good sized guy, 6 foot 2 maybe. He got a detached retina for his effort. The world needs more people like him and you.

  • Jude I⚡caяiot

    Right there in the response is why the law is so often stupid. She would have to prove that a life was being threatened in order to assault somebody… TO DEFEND SOMEONE ELSE.

    And in this case, her photos would not’ve even been that good of evidence to that. That is what is so messed up.

  • ilo photo

    I really agree; the little girl looks EXACTLY like my own 2 y/o daughter in photo #23 of the sequence. It really hit me hard, made me thankful for my own situation, and brought to light an issue usually taboo or unspoken in our world.

  • against abuse

    honestly I don’t condone the picture taking of a physical alternation, but its proof it happened and it is a warning to others of what could happen in that situation. It should also be a picture the victim looks at when thinking about returning to the abuser. Instead of getting mad she did not intervene, be happy she documented it visually, and get mad at the mom if she puts herself and her child back in that abuse household. Get mad at the courts who allows the abuser to get out and not take mandatory counseling for abuse, get mad at the guy for putting his hands on a woman in the first place.

  • Freemage

    A lot of the commenters also seem to assume that the photographer was male–”Why didn’t ~he~ intervene” is a very common refrain on the original story’s comments.

  • George Breithaupt


  • George Breithaupt

    Excellent point. I agree wholeheartedly!!!!!

  • George Breithaupt

    Couldn’t agree more. I say she handled the whole thing correctly from beginning to end. Don’t know that I would have handled it as well as SHE did!!! Bravo!!!!!!Pulitzer please!!!

  • George Breithaupt

    Unfortunately i know from personal experience that intervening would have been a good way to get BOTH of therm attacking her. Luckily, in my case the disagreement was verbal not physical but it was pretty heated. I didn’t know I could run backwards that fast!!! But seriously, i am sure we can add that to all the other excellent reasons not to intervene!!

  • George Breithaupt

    Agreed. As I pointed out in another post, her intervention probably would have had the effect of both ganging up on her. Seen it happen.