Powerful photo essay on domestic violence stirs backlash

A photo essay vividly documenting domestic assault lit up the Internet this week after Time Magazine published it as part of its LightBox series.

Ohio University graduate student Sara Lewkowicz didn’t set out to take pictures of domestic violence. Instead, according to the photo captions, she spent much of her first semester of graduate school photographing a young mother and her boyfriend who was newly released from prison, to demonstrate his struggle to integrate back into the community.

The relationship, tense from the beginning, ended with the man’s arrest after a violent argument unfolded in front of the photographer and the woman’s 2-year-old daughter.

Time published Lewkowicz’s 39 photos Wednesday on its website. As of Friday morning, more than 1,340 commenters had offered their opinions on the startling images. Some questioned the victim’s fitness as a mother. Others defended her.

But many questioned whether it was appropriate for Lewkowicz to continue shooting pictures rather than intervening in the assault.

Motrbotr wrote: as disgusted as I am by Shane’s actions I am equally disgusted by the inaction of photog to try to stop it.

Slaphapii wrote: Come on, getting hired by a newspaper doesn’t turn you into a wildebeest. Journalists don’t have instincts; they have jobs. Sara CHOSE to get an awesome photo spread rather than to provide critically needed help. If it was you, would you pick up the crying two year old, carry her into another room and comfort her

Lewkowicz met similar criticism in January when she posted the essay on Fotovisura.com. She wrote this response in the comments under that post:

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’m sorry you feel this wasn’t enough, but frankly, you sound very self-righteous. I have no regrets about how I handled that situation…Regards, Sara Lewkowicz

What to do in the moment is one thing and it seems like Lewkowicz explains a reasonable series of decisions.

But what to do leading up to that moment and what to do after that moment are just as important.

I emailed Lewkowicz and am hoping she agrees to an interview. Until then, here are some questions that could have been considered during the documentation and publication of this essay.

For Lewkowicz:

  • It seems there was a potential for violence before the evening of the assault. The pictures document the tension between Maggie and Shane, and more disturbingly, between Shane and Maggie’s son. Did you discuss with your teachers or fellow photographers what options you should consider if Shane became violent?
  • You document Shane’s clear affection for Maggie’s daughter and his distaste for her son. How did you think about your responsibility to report any suspicions you might have had of abuse?
  • After the assault, you comforted Maggie, rubbed her back, held her as she cried and drove her to a friend’s house. How might your actions have influenced Maggie’s independent ability to continue to consent to be part of the story?

For editors at Time:

  • What could you have done to anticipate the response to the story of Maggie and Shane? Could you have provided more information about the photographer’s decisions?
  • As the comment section lit up with good discussion, how could Time or Lewkowicz engage with the audience?
  • What other contextual information on the issue of domestic violence might the audience find useful or helpful as they digest these photos? (Time recently updated the story with this tag line: UPDATE: Readers who feel they–or people they know–need assistance can call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.)

Powerful journalism is often controversial. Asking questions early — as material is gathered — and often — as material is published — can often surface alternatives that minimize the harm stories caused. When journalists and newsrooms do this, they often diminish distractions and encourage the audience to focus on the message of the story, rather than the method in which it was reported.

Related: Reporting on Sexual Violence (a Poynter NewsU self-directed course in partnership with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center)

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  • ElRonbo

    Not intervening in the attack was absolutely the right call, and it has nothing to do with journalism. It’s a very, very common thing for a person to try to physically stop an attacker in a DV situation, only to have the victim assist their partner in an assault on the person trying to save them.
    I once heard a woman screaming, late at night as I was walking home (Cow Hollow district in San Francisco). Ran up, found a man punching a woman as she screamed for help. I pulled him off of her, he was trying to hit me, and she hit me in the back of the head with an empty beer bottle. Fortunately, I didn’t get hurt and was able to sit them both on the ground and call the police.
    The arriving officers (and since then, mental health professionals who handle DV issues) told me that it’s a very, very common occurance.

  • http://twitter.com/duckrabbitblog duckrabbit

    A good post. I also wrote about the issue here: http://duckrabbit.info/blog/2013/02/at-what-point-do-you-put-down-the-camera-and-call-the-police/ SInce then Sara has emailed me several times to take issue with what I wrote but I think these important discussions should be had in the open.

    I agree completely with your comment:

    ‘What to do in the moment is one thing and it seems like Lewkowicz explains a reasonable series of decisions.

    But what to do leading up to that moment and what to do after that moment are just as important.’

    But also Sara says that the man had her phone. Why was this? Did he take it from her? If so, might this have been a good moment, when things are escalating to get help? What about the child. Sara obviously has a realtionship with her since she has been following the family. She is naked, clearly distressed and watcing her mother being choked whilst Sara is taking pictures. Does the photographer have any duty to the child?

    Finally I disagree with Sara’s definition of a photojournalists instinct. I think it was her instinct to take pictures. Other very experienced photojournalists might have done something different.