Sara Naomi Lewkowicz: A Portrait of Domestic Violence

 

What do you mean by ‘a portrait of domestic violence?’
Why would you make a portrait of it?
Why are you not intervening?
Why are you not making it stop?
Why?

It’s possible that photographer Sara Naomi Lewkowicz faced a barrage of criticism for not intervening while taking the pictures that make up her 2012 series ‘Shane and Maggie’. What initially started out as a project following felons who have been released from prison and are readjusting to life outside (Shane in this case), Lewkowicz’s reportage took a different turn when one night Shane and his girlfriend Maggie got into a serious physical fight that ended in Shane getting arrested.

“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.” 

Maggie and Shane’s courtship was brief but intense. Shane called her everyday from prison, and upon his release, they began to date.

 

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Maggie had two children, Memphis, two, and Kayden, four. She had separated from their father several months prior to beginning her relationship with Shane.

 

One month into their courtship, Shane had Maggie’s name tattooed on his neck in large black letters.

 

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The stress of Shane’s unemployment and raising two young children on very little money often took its toll on Maggie and Shane’s relationship. As the newness of their relationship wore off, they began to argue more frequently, usually about money or Maggie’s focusing most of her energy on the children rather than her relationship. “Why can’t I be the most important one, for once?” Shane asked.

 

Within a few months of their relationship, Shane moved Maggie and her children to a trailer park in Somerset, Ohio. The location was farther away than Maggie had ever been from her family and friends before, and she said her feelings of isolation only increased over time.

 

Kayden lifted a chair and a toy truck over his head to show how strong he was.

 

Maggie and Shane took a rare night out alone together, singing karaoke at a local bar. 

 

After a night out at a local bar, Maggie left after becoming jealous of when another woman flirted with Shane. Upon arriving home, Shane flew into a rage, angry that Maggie had “abandoned him” at the bar and then drove home with his friend, whose house they were staying at for the week. Maggie told him to get out of the house, that he was too angry and that he would wake the children.

 

Rather than subsiding, Shane’s anger began to grow, and he screamed that Maggie had betrayed him, at one point accusing his friend (not pictured) of trying to pursue her sexually.

 

As the fight continued to rage, Shane told Maggie that she could choose between getting beaten in the kitchen, or going with him to the basement so they could talk privately.

 

As Shane and Maggie continued to fight, Memphis ran into the room and refused to leave Maggie’s side. She witnessed the majority of the assault on her mother. As the two fought, Memphis began to scream and stomp her feet.

 

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Around half past midnight, the police arrived after receiving a call from a resident in the house (pictured at right). Maggie cried and smoked a cigarette as an officer from the Lancaster Police Department tried to keep her separated from Shane and coax out the truth about the assault.

 

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Shane hugged Memphis goodbye before being arrested. He insisted he wasn’t a bad person, that Maggie had been trying to leave the house and drive drunk with the children in the car.

 

The series then goes on to show how Maggie picks up the pieces of her life and moves back in with the husband she has separated from who is also the father of Kayden and Memphis.

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Maggie tried to pull herself together as she prepared to drive with her children to her best friend’s house for the night.

 

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An officer from the Lancaster Police Department photographed the bruises on Maggie’s neck from where Shane had choked her. “You know, he’s not going to stop,” the officer told Maggie as she wept. “They never stop. They usually stop when they kill you.”

 

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Kayden, who had slept through the assault, was disoriented and began to cry when he awoke. Memphis remained calm and seemed mostly concerned with comforting her mother. “Don’t cry, mommy, I love you,” she said over and over.

 

As Lewkowicz rationalises,’While this story is, in part, about domestic violence, it is not a reportage on a domestic dispute—it is not a news event. It seeks to take a deeper, unflinching look into the circumstances that transform a relationship into a crucible, and what happens before, during, immediately proceeding and long after an episode of violence takes place. With this story, it is my goal to examine the effects of this type of violence on the couple, the absued, the abuser, and the children who serve as witnesses to the abuse.’

The day following the attack, Maggie had to grapple with what would come next for her and her children. She had no source of income, no childcare, and was afraid to return to the home she and Shane shared to retrieve her possessions. She expressed intense fear that Shane would be let out on bail and come after her, and called the jail several times to make sure he hadn’t been released.

 

In the days following the attack, Maggie had time to reflect on what had occurred and decided to make an official statement to the police. She said she had resumed communications with her estranged husband and the father of her children, and was considering moving with her children to Alaska, where he is stationed with the Army.

 

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.

 

This series is one of the most hard hitting series we’ve shared on this site. And though it made us sad and uncomfortable to be even in the presence of these images (the photographs are currently on display at Somerset House as part of the 2014 Sony World Photography Awards), there is something in knowing that it is photographs like these that take the conversation forward, that reduce the discomfort and example that Maggie is, that make us more amenable to talking and looking at a problem. This is not the pretty esoteric art that we’re usually looking at, but a reality that we need to face.

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz has been awarded the L’Iris d’Or/Sony World Photography Awards Photographer of the Year for this series, winning the award from among 140,000 photographers from 166 countries.

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