Photographer as Witness: A Portrait of Domestic Violence

Shane has spent more than half of his life incarcerated. His facial tattoos, along with his criminal record, made finding steady work extremely difficult, and work that paid a living wage nearly impossible.
Sara Naomi Lewkowicz
The following photographs were taken between Sept. 2012 and Dec. 2012.

At 31, Shane had spent much of his life incarcerated. His facial tattoos, along with his criminal record, made finding steady work extremely difficult, and work that paid a living wage nearly impossible. After his last stint in prison, Shane was determined to turn over a new leaf and create a better life for himself. That life, as he saw it, would have to include Maggie, a woman 11 years his junior who was his sister's neighbor.

Updated: June 25, 2013

On June 25, 2013, Sara Naomi Lewkowicz won the 2013 Ville de Perpignan Rémi Ochlik Award for her work documenting Domestic Violence, to be awarded later this year at Visa Pour l’Image in Perpignan.

Photographer Sara Naomi Lewkowicz has continued to document the story of Maggie and her life since November 2012, when she was the victim of a violent attack by her now ex-boyfriend Shane. In an assignment for TIME in March 2013, Lewkowicz visited Maggie and her family in Alaska to document their life as they continue to move on from the incident. Click here to jump to the newest images added to the story and here to see a new multimedia video produced by Lewkowicz for TIME

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz

Maggie and Memphis, March 3, 2013. More than three months since the assault, Maggie has moved her family to Alaska to try to repair her marriage and give the children a chance to be closer to their father. Maggie and her husband met at 14. She said they’d been on and off since eighth grade, yet they always seem to find their way back to one another.

Domestic violence is often shielded from public view. Usually, we only hear it muffled through walls or see it manifested in the faded yellow and purple bruises of a woman who “walked into a wall” or “fell down the stairs.” Despite a movement to increase awareness of domestic violence, we still treat it as a private crime, as if it is none of our business.

During my time as a freelance photojournalist and as a Master’s candidate at Ohio University, one of the biggest challenges of my career came in November of 2012, while working on a project about the stigma associated with being an ex-convict. Suddenly, an incident of domestic violence unexpectedly became my business.

I had met Shane and Maggie two-and-a-half months before. Southeastern Ohio was still warm that time of year and brimming with small regional festivals. I had gone to the Millersport Sweet Corn Festival to shoot my first assignment for an editorial photography class. Almost immediately, I spotted a man covered in tattoos, including an enormous piece on his neck that read, “Maggie Mae.” He was holding a beautiful little girl with blonde curls. His gentle manner with her belied his intimidating ink, and I approached them to ask if I could take their portrait.

I ended up spending my entire time at the fair with Shane, 31, and his girlfriend Maggie, 19. Maggie’s two children, Kayden, four, and Memphis, nearly two, were not Shane’s, but from her then-estranged husband.

Shane and Maggie had started dating a month prior to meeting me, and Shane told me about his struggles with addiction and that he had spent much of his life in prison. Maggie shared her experience losing her mother to a drug overdose at the age of eight, and having the challenges of raising two small children alone while their father, who was in the Army, was stationed in Afghanistan. Before they drove home, I asked if I could continue to document them, and they agreed.

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.

I have continued to follow Maggie since the abuse, and I’ve also begun working closely with photographer Donna Ferrato, who first began documenting domestic violence 30 years ago.

Since that November night, Maggie has moved to Alaska to be with the father of her two children, who is stationed in Anchorage. In March, I will travel to Alaska to document Maggie as she tries to put the pieces of her family and life back together. My goal is to examine the long-term effects of this incident on her current relationship, her children, and her own sense of self. Devoted to revealing these hidden stories of domestic abuse, Maggie asked me to move forward with this project and to tell her story, because she feels the photographs might be able to help someone else.

“Women need to understand this can happen to them. I never thought it could happen to me, but it could,” she told me. “Shane was like a fast car. When you’re driving it, you think ‘I might get pulled over and get a ticket.’ You never think that you’re going to crash.”

The Violence Against Women Act, which provides funding to help victims of domestic violence, was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994, and is now up for re-authorization. Read more about the law and why it’s currently stuck in Congress.


Sara Naomi Lewkowicz is a photographer and first year graduate student at Ohio University in Athens.


UPDATE: Readers who feel they–or people they know–need assistance can call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE.

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