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]