Photojournalist Sara Naomi Lewkowicz set out to document how difficult it is for felons once they're released from incarceration. Her project angle took a dramatic turn when she witnessed her subject abusing his girlfriend. Lewkowicz chose to stay behind the camera and to tell this story instead.
Photo credit: ViktorCap/ iStock/360/ Getty Images

Award-winning photography student Sara Naomi Lewkowicz is the subject of a whole lot of (negative) attention for her stunningly painful image series titled "Shane and Maggie." In 2012, Lewkowicz set out to tell Shane's story as a recently released ex-convict but ended up finding a different angle to take: Shane was abusing Maggie. Lewkowicz chose to stay behind the camera to tell the important story of domestic abuse as a process and this is what caught the public's eye, heart and (strong) opinion. Calls for ethics were heard — loudly and clearly — across the internet. I agree that there's an ethical issue here; I'm just not sure if the public is right about what that issue really is.

Front lines

When Lewkowicz's project was published in TIME's Lightbox photography feature, commenters took issue with the spot she took behind the camera rather than on the front lines. Nay-sayers accused Lewkowicz of choosing her photo project over her ethics, that her role should have been to step in and stop the abuse. Lewkowicz stood behind her work — and her ethics — clarifying details that showed she had, indeed, called the police and that, importantly, she showed up to not just be by Maggie's side but to help her tell her story. That sounds an awful lot like the front lines to me.

The truth hurts

Lewkowicz isn't the first person to try to capture and shed light upon this taboo topic. Donna Ferrato trod this water first, visually documenting women who've survived domestic abuse for 30 years. In Lewkowicz's summary of her own and Ferrato's work, she quotes Ferrato saying, "No one ever wants to see [the photos] because they make people nervous, anxious.... [because] the camera catches truth, in action, from all different sides." And that truth is painful, too painful, for public consumption. But is this a good enough reason to silence the fact that abuse happens?

Clarifying ethics

When explaining her work, Lewkowicz said, "Domestic violence is a largely invisible crime. We usually only hear it muffled through walls, and we usually only see it manifested in the faded yellow and purple bruises of a woman who "walked into a wall" or "fell down the stairs." It is rarely limited to one event, and it rarely stops. My project, "Shane and Maggie," seeks to portray domestic abuse as a process, as opposed to a single incident, examining how a pattern of abuse develops and eventually crests, as well as its short — and long — term effects on victims, their families and their abusers."

My project seeks to portray domestic abuse as a process, as opposed to a single incident, examining how a pattern of abuse develops and eventually crests, as well as its short — and long — term effects on victims, their families and their abusers.

Lewkowicz had an opportunity to unsilence violence and she took it — giving Maggie, only 19-years-old in the photos, a voice and all of us the opportunity to talk openly about domestic violence. So the real question here might be, "Would turning off the camera when things got too real and too honest — would silencing the abuse — have been unethical?"

Violence UnSilenced

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz, a different Maggie, is a journalist and the founder of Violence UnSilenced (VU), a speak-out platform for survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape.

Violence UnSilenced doesn't take the place of trained advocacy professionals. In Schutz's own words, "VU just lets survivors tell their own stories." The site gives victims a place to use their voice, to tell their story and to be heard. Sounds eerily similar to what Lewkowicz did for Maggie, doesn't it? When supporters — like you, like me — search the site for ways to help, the message is singular: Spread the word so that the voices on Violence UnSilenced are heard by as many people as possible, and so that other survivors know there is a safe place online to speak out and find community.

When asked about Lewkowicz's project, Schutz said, "The intersection between practicing ethical journalism and participating responsibly in a civilized society is really interesting to me, especially when it comes to domestic abuse. First and foremost, these sources need to be safe, and thank goodness we have experts for that. But supplementally, in cases where it's appropriate, the cathartic power for victims who speak out and the education and ownership that follows for the rest of us can't be understated. If we shame the conversation starters — especially when they're the victims — we enable the silence and secrecy that keeps survivors isolated."

In Lewkowicz's "Shane and Maggie" project both the journalist and the victim are the conversation starters which begs the question why is Lewkowicz being held under public scrutiny? This brings us right back to the difficulty of the subject itself.

If we shame the conversation starters — especially when they're the victims — we enable the silence and secrecy that keeps survivors isolated.

Breaking molds

Kristin Shaw is the author and essayist behind the beautifully written blog, Two Cannoli, where she shares her thoughts on love and life. Shaw is also a survivor of domestic abuse.

About her response to "Shane and Maggie" as a domestic violence survivor, Shaw said, "My initial reaction to the story was that this was going to do nothing for domestic abuse survivors. It portrays the stereotypical angry, tattooed male beating up on his young wife with the kids naked in the background. The only thing I agreed with on the story was the intent to show that domestic violence is a process and not something that happens suddenly; it works its way into the relationship gradually, and is punctuated with poignant and even happy moments, too."

When Shaw did click through to the story, to the photos, her reaction was similar to what I imagine most of ours were: heart-breaking sadness. Shaw said, "When I looked at the photos, finally, I started to cry. I cried for Maggie, and I felt her fear and loss and pain. I felt her wish that she could change him. I cried for the children, watching this play out, and wishing for them a better future. I cried for the feelings I had when I was punched in the jaw and kicked and screamed at." But it's the second layer of her response that gets to the heart of the ethics controversy. Shaw said, "I detested this photographer for standing there, snapping photos, while this family fell apart. That's what my heart said."

Powerful voices

On the surface, it seems that Lewkowicz, Maggie and Shaw hold opposing views. But delving deeper, this may not be the case. Lewkowicz has continued to document Maggie's story. In March 2013, Lewkowicz visited Maggie (no longer with Shane who is facing five to 17 years in prison for domestic battery and violating his probation), her children and her estranged husband, Zane, in Alaska on assignment with TIME. About this interview, Lewkowicz said, "The biggest part of this whole upsetting situation that has made the difference has truly been Maggie. Her courage through this whole ordeal, especially considering her age, is extraordinary. She has asked me to move forward with this project and to tell her story, because she feels that the photographs could potentially help someone escape from the same type of situation she was in."

Maggie told Lewkowicz, "Women need to understand this can happen to them. I never thought it could happen to me, but it could... 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."

And Shaw told me, "I want to see more stories (but not photographic evidence) of women like me: women with a college education, a great childhood and a good job who found themselves in an abusive relationship and had a hard time leaving because they had invested so much of their hearts before they realized what was happening. That's why I tell my story. I want people to understand that it can happen to them. It can happen to their daughter. Or son. I never thought it would happen to me. You have to understand the process and you have to understand that it's hard to get out. Outsiders cannot assume that domestic violence only lives in poverty. Often, it's a charismatic life-of-the-party partner and friends would not guess what he is like at home."

Public outcry has been on behalf of women like Maggie and Shaw. But I think the cry is misplaced. Feminist blogger Veronica Arreola explains, "Domestic violence is something that is still a mystery for some people. We still hear people ask why women just don't leave. These photos, for me, show not only the violence, but in some of them how gentle the abuser looks and acts. I think these photos add to our conversation and eduction on what domestic violence looks like." This seems to be the goal of all of the women in this story and, perhaps, what our goal as the observers should be as well.

I never thought it could happen to me, but it could... 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.

Adding to the conversation, not silencing it

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which instituted a mandatory arrest policy in domestic violence cases, was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994 and is now up for re-authorization on the basis that some of the VAWA funding allocated to law enforcement should be redirected to prevention, job training and services that help women with the logistics of leaving their abusive partners. This is a complicated issue that many of us have yet to engage in head on conversations about or advocacy for. Maybe, ethically, it's time to examine both of these problems — out loud.

Lewkowicz has found a way to step into these issues and to continue the conversation. She's still in touch with Maggie, who is in Ohio now without Shane or Zane, and they're still working together. Lewkowicz says, "With this story, 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. We typically only see victims of abuse in the hours or days after having been abused. I have been able to spend time with Maggie and her children before, during and after the assault. My next step is to... examine the long-term effects of this incident on her current relationship, on her children and on her own sense of self."

To view the entire Shane and Maggie photo essay, visit fotovisura by Sara Naomi Lewkowicz. >>

Share with us!^What do you think about "Shane and Maggie?" Should Lewkowicz have stayed behind the camera and what should she do with the project now? Leave us a comment below.

More topics to think about

Why a no-makeup selfie doesn't raise cancer awareness
Note to SELF magazine: Shaming women is never cool
The Biggest Loser and the culture of thinness

Topics: