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March 5, 2013

The Role of the Camera and the Photos in Domestic Abuse: Maggie, Shane and Sara Lewkowicz


I imagine many of you are already familiar with the domestic violence photos TIME Lightbox published by Sara Lewkowicz. Poynter has the backstory of how Lewkowicz, shooting a long term project about the life of an inmate released from prison, ended up witnessing boyfriend Shane’s attack on his girlfriend, Maggie. Jina Moore’s piece at Salon (“Don’t blame the victim, or the photographer“) is also very informative and thoughtful, addressing key facts as well as condemnation of Ms. Lewkowicz and Maggie in the TIME comment thread, as well as the previous incarnation at Fotovisura.

If Moore speaks out largely for the photographer and for Maggie, however, it’s important also to speak out for the role of the camera as well as the photographs. First of all, who can say where this couple and the attack would have gone without a camera present?  Moore addresses the point this way:

In case it isn’t clear, it is reasonable to think that Shane thought he was holding back for the camera. It seems reasonable to think that Shane thought what he was doing was harmless enough that even people whose fucking business it wasn’t could watch. It seems reasonable to think Maggie believed the photographer-witness to be her best bet for safety. It would, therefore, it seems to me, be reasonable to think that the act of documentation was not merely passive; it was also protective.

When we look at photos, we primarily take them as descriptive. Like a view through a window. Like a fly on the wall. In this case, however, it must have been clear to Maggie as well as Shane that what was happening in real time was “on the record,” that the photos served as much like testimony as description. Whereas abuse is typically characterized by a silent and hidden act of violence, it’s likely the presence of the camera and the recording of the incident was determinative in terminating the relationship. Agreeing with Moore, I think we can credit the camera in large part for confining the relationship to this single act of violence, the arrest precipitating Maggie and her children moving on.

Another effect of the recording? In contrast to the tendency to suppress or minimize an abusive encounter, the photos served automatically as an extension of Maggie’s voice, the existence of the images equivalent to an unquestionable determination to inform friends, family and the entire community about the event that just transpired. In most cases, guilt, shame, embarrassment, fear of retribution or conflicted feelings for the abuser can and will suppress the act of speaking out. The existence of the photos, however — which belonged to the photographer and were destined for distribution given Maggie’s prior assent — were instant insurance Maggie’s voice would be heard, and apparently, the leverage for immediate action.

I can’t help but think the presence of the camera helped prevent that escalation, the act of “going off camera” established a higher bar and a discernible step up to Shane’s behavior. Of course, who’s to know whether two-year-old Memphis interjecting herself at this point — however briefly, as Moore emphasizes — might have been the factor to curtail greater violence, though it could have been some combination of camera and daughter. I’m also thinking about Shane’s psychology and the presence of the camera, especially his prompting to move to the basement and away from the camera. Writes Moore:

In one caption, Sara writes that Shane tried to coax Maggie into the basement by offering Maggie two options: keep getting beaten in the kitchen, or they go “talk privately” in the basement. But there’s a clause that’s not in the caption: “What he said was — he pointed at me at one point and said, ‘Because it’s none of her fucking business.’” … “[Maggie] just kept saying no, I’m not going down there with you,” Sara told me.

In submitting to his violent impulses, Shane also knew the attack would be public. Not that that knowledge was enough to shut it down but I’m wondering what effect it did have. Moore seems unsure whether the camera forced him to apply some break or he could have cared less. I’m wondering if Shane recognized the recording would force a greater reckoning — not that he was consciously thinking it would end the relationship and/or return him to jail — but that he knew, at some level, that hated camera might also save him from the tortured dependency and jealous rage he couldn’t help. Since most people, as Moore also indicates, seem terribly uncomfortable about actually addressing the images, let’s go there.

Given the tendency of photos to be more binary, fixed to one sentiment or, in the case above, one-side of the love/hate equation or the other, what the photos disconcertingly present is inconsistency in behavior. I think it’s that contradiction that leads certain viewers to lash out at Maggie, seeing her in one frame as loving girlfriend and in the next, furiously showing Shane the door.  I don’t know how you get around that, and perhaps it’s what requires so much courage for someone like Maggie to submit to this documentation, her internal life being more complicated than desiring a convict with violent tendencies who related to her mostly as a possession.

Beyond the abuse imagery and the confrontation scenes themselves, however, the photos of Shane certainly contribute to a larger picture of abuse. The shot of Shane scissoring Maggie on the couch — she in between him and her child, her attention on the TV and his, seeking hers — speaks eloquently to his hunger for mirroring, and probably sex, and his clawing possessiveness.

The photo of Shane bellowing like an animal in front of the TV (a cop show??) is profound for the stillness in which it captures such abject rage.


Perhaps even more powerful though, as it hits my antennae, is the shot of Shane’s tensed body angrily gripping Maggie’s little boy, Kayden. (And yes, the photo makes me think, my shrink hat in place, about abuse indications earlier on.)

What’s really creepy, however, are the portraits at the amusement park. Yes, there’s the photo of Shane adamant and starving to capture Maggie’s attention while little Memphis (perhaps sensing the same something that caused her to intercede in the abuse that night) is split off by Shane into the happy meal universe.


What I really can’t get over and can’t stop staring at is Shane’s crazy, screaming (and amazingly, also, dripping) warning flag of a tattoo. Besides wonder what it was like for Maggie to see herself constantly around his neck, how very twisted to see Maggie’s name in dark giant letters like he couldn’t swallow or breathe without her.

(photos: Sara Lewkowicz)

  • duckrabbit

    Interesting post about a very powerful and brilliantly constructed set of pictures but I feel the analysis is one sided.

    Firstly Moore’s post on Salon is inaccurate. She sets her article up by saying ‘The Internet thinks this is Sara’s fault … Commenters at Time think Sara is unethical for not trying to stop the

    This is not true. Is there a single comment that blames Sara for the attack? The vast majority of comments come out in support of the work. Some do suggest that she could have done something other than pass her phone to someone else.

    There is an insulting assumption in the Salon article that audiences can’t both be moved and challenged by the pictures whilst at the same time question the role of the photographer.

    Why is it ‘reasonable’ to assume that Shame is held back by the camera? According to your account Shane is clearly further agitated by the presence of the camera. On top of that he has had his dominance in the relationship questioned in front of the camera. Wouldn’t it be also reasonable to assume that he feels a need to re-assert his dominance in the presence of the camera? He clearly has control issues. He’s taken the photographers phone (isn’t this the point someone should have involved the police) and the camera is undermining that need for control. Add alcohol into that mix …

    There is also almost no mention of the naked child. She is clearly distressed watching her mother being choked whilst a photographer is taking pictures. For all she knows, and the photographer, the mother is seconds away from being choked to death.

    Given that the photographer has a relationship with the child I think its entirely reasonable to ask wether the needs of the child should come before the need to compose the shot or for us to see the photo? The photograher states that a ‘photojournalists instinct’ kicked in. I disagree. I know many photographers who instead of moving round and crouching behind the child to take the shot would have picked her up; would have balanced the needs differently. That’s not to say Sara did the wrong thing, rather that its important to understand that as a photojounalist its not the only right thing to do.

    It’s a brilliant photograph by the way. But the justifcation of it plays to the idea that by seeing the photo we somehow have the child’s perspective. Physically, to an extent, that is true, but emotionally not at all. I write that as someone who was abused as a child and would have craved an adult to pick me up not compose me in a shot at a moment of great pain. A moment that is now public property. Its for this reason, that in the UK at least, a broadcaster would have likely protected the identity of the child.

    The argument that the photos are neccessary to lock Shane up does not stand up. The photographer is a witness (one of a number). Alongside the physical evidence this would normally be enough to convict.

    • Michael Shaw

      Thanks Benjamin. As always, I respect your point of view, and certainly your disclosure. If I appreciate anything better having studied this, it’s how much less I know about what was happening around the photos, in between the photos, and about the characters of the players and their relationships overall. There’s that, and the intention on my part, as always, to speak more to the photographs than to the principals.

      Certainly, I”m intrigued by your suggestion that the camera could have incited Shane more than toned him down. Somehow I’m not getting that sense however. I could have certainly used more background from Sara to further interpret that, but I also respect her decision to disclose just as much as she did to lend context, and then, to defend herself. Again, with very limited, even grains of information, but felt to me there was more protest and self-consciousness surrounding Shane’s introduction of the basement than there was the ignition to descend there.

      Ultimately though (just like last week), with full respect to the extremely serious and important subject matter as well as the very important ethical questions in play, I think the elicitation of deeper meaning and judgement about it is what’s so wondrous about (the) photojournalism (world).

  • Stan B.

    The essay not only lays bare how limited the (photographic) medium is, and how open to interpretation individual images are, it also illuminates just how little people understand the nature of violence. To think that people were actually suggesting that the photographer should have konked him over the head with the camera- and that just like in a bad cartoon/movie, he would have automatically keeled over, lights out, problem solved! A truly frightening, infantile analysis. How can audiences effectively analyze such mediums, when we can’t even analyze real life events from an adult perspective?

    • duckrabbit

      Hi Stan,

      to be fair I think out of about 1200 comments only one person suggested something so daft.

  • bystander

    There is one other angle to the record these photographs preserve… running parallel to “Maggie’s voice” to others is Maggie’s voice to herself. “Seven leavings” is what one domestic abuse counselor told me it took for a woman to leave her abuser once and for all. Should Maggie try to tell herself it wasn’t so bad, that reconciliation is possible, that “he was good with the kids,” or that he’s different now, these photographs are her testimony to herself. She can’t look at them like some other woman might and think, “That’s not me.” She might, or might not go back to him, but if she does, perhaps these photographs will reduce the “seven leavings” to four or fewer. There is, of course, no way to know.

  • Cactus

    Late start today, so
    I haven’t read all the ancillary links. But isn’t it possible that Maggie
    wanted and authorized the photos as a ploy to strengthen her own resolve to
    leave and/or to have him sent back to jail? Of course, a witness could act in
    the same capacity, but you can argue with a witness. When she looks at these
    photos, she can’t argue — the evidence is there, still, violent, silent and
    ultimately unarguable.

    Another thing to
    consider for the children, especially the girl, is that these photos will be
    around and available in perpetuity. It’s not like a book or newspaper story of
    old. Ostensibly this documentary story will be available to everyone with a
    computer or iphone until this girl is in her dotage. A friend of mine was just
    in a beverage commercial (the kind of story comm’l shown on the internet) where
    she was supposed to say the line “these f**king kids” and she refused to say it
    because it will be available for her granddaughter to see.

    • duckrabbit

      HI Cactus. My understanding is that Maggie wanted the pictures to be seen. She failed to turn up at the trial however, but the photographer was there as a wtiness which led to the mans conviction.

  • Gypsy

    A 4 year old should NOT be expected to protect her mother especially from a hardened criminal. Maggie needs to put her children first and if she can’t then she shouldn’t have them. Yes, when it comes to our children, I am judgmental. NO EXCUSES.

    • Rusty SpikeFist

      +1 ^

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  • pleasegetout

    This post shows a violent abuser, and those comments on photography video aspects, are you for real? This women and her CHILDREN are in grave danger. If they don’t die from the abuse the scars will last a lifetime. Its painful to see. Maggie if you haven’t left yet. RUN don’t walk. See your local shelter. WOW

  • duckrabbit

    HI Michael,

    thanks for your reply.

    You have to ask yourself why did Shane want to take the women away from the camera? Its plausible, reasonable to presume that it was so he could batter her more (she doesn’t want to go with him). It’s also plausible, reasonable to presume that he wanted to do it because the camera was winding him up. Infact he says as much.

    All that is to say I think its dangerous, especially when children are involved, to read this situation too much one way or another. Better to go on what is actaully there, which to your credit is exactly what you’ve done.

    What we do know for sure is there is a naked distressed child, her mother is being choked, and a photographer, with whom the child has a relationship has moved to stand behind the child and take a picture from the child’s perspective.

    This is a powerful picture. But it illustrates both what a shot can and can’t do. We can see the phycical perspective but we kid ourselves if we think it gives us any real emotional insight.

    At what point then, given that, is our, and the photographers, looking a form of voyeurism? Certainly if the comments on Time are anything to go by the pictures just re-inforced beliefs that people already had.

  • Michael Shaw

    Absorbing your last comment, I’m now thinking that what is perhaps more stunning about this series than the window on abuse is what it has to teach us about the limits of photography — specifically, the limitations of a series based on a critical incident from a temporal standpoint. Being a purist, as it were, when it comes to the still image, I don’t look at a lot of video even when there is photo story where it’s available. If there is are legitimate question about my reading of that photo when context is an issue, though, I will certainly seek out the full motion. Otherwise, how else can I do justice to the still?

    I’m finding it fascinating now that we are speculating to this degree about what we’re looking at above. I know you’re a videographer and I imagine you’re suffering as much from the inability to see what happened, in what the length of time, in what tone of utterance and in what more continuous body language, not to mention the other factors, such as where the other people are in the house or the room, how exactly did the basement issue come up and exactly how was it averted, and gnawingly, just how long did it take for the police to get there?

    It’s the fact temporality is so critical to our perception of the abuse sequence that the Salon article felt the need to inform us how fast the daughter showed up, got involved between Shane and Maggie, and then was removed. Even knowing that though, we see the photos of the daughter in the abuse sequence — not to mention how much weight we can’t help but assign it given the multiple photos dedicated to it — and it seems like she’s there forever.

  • duckrabbit

    Hi Michael,

    thanks for the discussion.

    Actually by background I’m an audio documentary producer and yes I guess I am missing hearing the voices here.

    It seems to me if the pictures are to go beyond re-inforcing stereotypes then something is missing. Maybe those who think the woman is white trash who put her children at risk, as some have commented on TIME, need to hear her voice to find compassion.

    Of course hearing from her might actually re-inforce that opinion and at the same time turn others away. We just don’t know and I guess that is the point. Even with such a well constructed and dramatic photo essay it is still seemingly, from the evidence of the comments, re-inforceing beliefs, polarised judgements, not really challengeing them.

    Great documentary has the self-awareness to go beyond that.

    If I was to talk personally for a moment about abuse. As you know, everybody experiences things differently, so as a caveat its important not to make a rule based on my own experience. But with that warning the photojournalism community has developed a martyr myth about the need to show children at their most vulnerable. It goes something like this, the photo that we are taking means that their pain, the child’s suffering is not in vain because the photo changes the world, the action is itself intrinsically good. It’s an argument for the greater good.

    But children, mostly, don’t choose to be martyrs. They don’t choose to be in the pics. So what if the photo of the little girl doesn’t change the world? What if it merely re-inforces beliefs that already exist? How then do we justify that there is a permanant record of her standing naked, distressed whilst her mother is being choked and the photographer, someone she knows, is walking round to crouch behond her to get a better shot?

    From my experience I would say that the child may grow up to feel that was a further abuse of her vulnerability. She may not. We do not know. But I do know, to have some kind of understanding, and to challenge the tightly held and polarised beliefs then there needs to be another perspective. At the moment we only have the photographers and that to me is flawed.

  • Stan B.

    Agreed, just amazed by the variety, and extremes, of interpretation and
    “solutions.” Sometimes it’s good to be opinionated, other times (particularly when confronted with the unfamiliar) it’s really best to lay low, observe and question, both what we see and how we interpret it through our own filters. Yeah, that’s all pretty obvious; but it’s especially true when it comes to the particulars of something as emotionally complex (primitive as the physicality may be) as violence- every scenario of which has its own individual and personal dynamics. And stills are a particularly limited medium that can exaggerate those dynamics- or negate them altogether, offering little in the way of explaining motive or assigning fault.

    I wasn’t there, I don’t know what transpired- and while it’s relatively simple to assess he had no right to put his hands on anyone, I certainly wouldn’t presume to criticize the photographer who seems to have acted responsibly and within reason.

  • Michael Shaw

    Thanks to you, too, Benjamin. The martyr myth and also the longitudinal implications of the photo story. More things for me to wrap my head around.

  • duckrabbit

    So true Stan.

  • duckrabbit

    Appreciate the space Michael greatly to have this kind of rare conversation.

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