Chilling photo essay documents a night of domestic violence

Shane and Maggie

photo by Sara Naomi Lewkowicz

*Trigger warning*

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.

View all the photos here.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

Syreeta McFadden is a contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US and an editor of Union Station Magazine.

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Join the Conversation

  • Sam L-L

    Wow, that is some very affecting stuff. Serious well wishes to Maggie, Kayden, and Memphis.

    Is there an established best practice for what you are supposed to do if you see violence, particularly domestic violence? I assume 100% call the cops; it sounds like intervening physically is wrong; is it helpful to intervene verbally instead? Or does that also pose too much risk of escalation? Seems like something that’s worth knowing by the general public along the lines of ‘what to do if you see someone have a heart attack’.

  • Stacie Hewitt

    It’s very difficult to look at these and know a person was there taking photos. I understand that one can never know precisely what should or shouldn’t have happened and law enforcement apparently said intervening is not advised, it’s still really conflicting for me to think about.

    • Sara Naomi Lewkowicz

      Stacie, I’m the photographer, and I’m just wondering, what bothers you more? The fact that photos were taken, or the fact that a woman was attacked in front of her child? If you’re thinking more about the former than the latter, perhaps you should marinate on that for a little bit…because the problem is probably with you.

      Also…I find it pretty disturbing that even a commenter on an awesome feminist site like this is still finding a way to be more disturbed at the actions of a woman who was on the scene, as opposed to the man who did the ACTUAL BATTERING. Just sayin’.