[Trigger Warning: This post contains a description and photos of physical assault that may potentially be triggering for survivors of such abuse.]
Just as Congress was debating the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, photographer Sara Naomi Lewkowicz’s 39-frame photo essay “Photographer As Witness: A Portrait of Domestic Violence” was featured in Time Magazine and is receiving serious backlash and hate from viewers.
Released this past Wednesday, the photo-story exposes the domestic abuse between 31-year-old Shane and his 19-year-old girlfriend Maggie as their two young children look on. What begins as a representation of Shane and Maggie’s relationship with each other and with their children, with shots of them cuddling and eating dinner with their kids, quickly escalates into images of Shane slamming Maggie violently into their stove and choking her while her two-year-old daughter, Memphis, watches in the background.
Lewkowicz’s project originally began as a story focusing on the difficulties felons face after being released from incarceration, but after photographing Shane and Maggie, her purpose was quickly transformed. As Lewkowicz states in her article on fotovisura.com, “It is my goal to examine the effects of this type of violence on the couple, the abused, the abuser, and the children who serve as witnesses to the abuse.”
Since it was published, Lewkowicz’s project has received negative attention because many commenters feel that Lewkowicz should have tried to stop the abuse rather than standing by and documenting the incident on her camera. Lewkowicz actually did call 911 (and includes images of their response in her photo essay as well), but for many this was not enough. Even Maggie was attacked by commenters for allowing the abuse to happen, for staying with Shane, and for not fighting back. As one commenter states, “She is not a victim. She is the perpetrator.” But as Jina Moore notes in her article on Salon.com, the only person who isn’t blamed in these comments is the man committing the violence.
Domestic violence and abuse are acts that are often invisible in our society because they happen in private, inside of homes, or in intimate spaces the public eye is not privy to. However, that doesn’t mean that these incidents should be ignored, nor should a blind eye be turned toward the source of violence: the abuser.
Lewkowicz is far from the first photographer to expose the harsh truth of domestic violence through photography. Donna Ferrato, the first person to extensively record women survivor’s of domestic abuse, has been photographing these subjects for the past thirty years. As Ferrato explains, photos of domestic abuse make people anxious and nervous because they don’t want to acknowledge the violence or truth of the situations.
Whether you think Lewkowicz’s photo essay was unethical or not, the truth is that her images show us something that is often not exposed or discussed in our society, unless we are directly involved in the violence. They show us the truth of Shane and Maggie’s relationship, and they force us to acknowledge this harsh, damaging, and horrible reality.
All photographs taken by Sara Naomi Lewkowicz