While photographing an ex-convict’s struggle to reintegrate into civilian life, photojournalist Sara Naomi Lewkowicz found herself a witness to domestic violence:
I intended to paint a portrait of the catch-22 of being a released ex-convict: even though they are physically free, the metaphorical prison of stigma doesn’t allow them to truly escape. That story changed dramatically one night, after a visit to a bar.
In a nearby town where Shane had found temporary work, they stayed with the kids at a friend’s house. That night, at a bar, Maggie had become incensed when another woman had flirted with Shane, and left. Back at the house, Maggie and Shane began fighting. Before long, their yelling escalated into physical violence.
Shane attacked Maggie, throwing her into chairs, pushing her up against the wall and choking her in front of her daughter, Memphis.
After I confirmed one of the housemates had called the police, I then continued to document the abuse — my instincts as a photojournalist began kicking in. If Maggie couldn’t leave, neither could I.
Eventually, the police arrived. I was fortunate that the responding officers were well educated on First Amendment laws and did not try to stop me from taking pictures. At first, Maggie did not want to cooperate with the officers who led Shane away in handcuffs, but soon after, she changed her mind and gave a statement about the incident. Shane pled guilty to a domestic violence felony and is currently in prison in Ohio.
The incident raised a number of ethical questions. I’ve been castigated by a number of anonymous internet commenters who have said that I should have somehow physically intervened between the two. Their criticism counters what actual law enforcement officers have told me — that physically intervening would have likely only made the situation worse, endangering me, and further endangering Maggie.
Like the work of Donato Ferraro, Lewkowicz has provided us a rare and intimate view into domestic violence through Shane and Maggie. Lewkowicz faced some criticism for not intervening, and while many of us would feel compelled to defend a victim, I think it’s equally compelling that Maggie is letting Lewkowicz show us her story. Domestic violence so often happens behind closed doors, and there’s courage here on the part of both the photographer and subject to help show other women (and men) who find themselves in this circumstance that they aren’t alone. These images, while challenging to see, are also shot with great empathy and care. This work is important.