Domestic Violence Photo Essay Photographers

Sara Lewkowicz is one of the 50 best emerging photographers for 2015, as named in the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards. She was also one of the eight “jurors’ picks.” Here is her winning entry and artist’s statement. Below, you can also read an interview and learn what made her work so special in the eyes of the jury.

Artist’s Statement

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, “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 after-effects on victims, their families, and their abusers.

Juror’s Statement

Though ostensibly an essay about a victim of domestic abuse, Sara Lewkowicz’s lacerating portrait of “Maggie” seems to inadvertently capture the day-to-day experience of two young children as they try to adapt to difficult circumstances. Lewkowicz’s profoundly intimate photographs demonstrate her talent for insinuating herself into her subjects’ lives, while eliciting thought-provoking questions about her role as documentarian, as well as ours as witness.

—Jennifer Blessing
Senior Curator of Photography
New York City, USA


LC: Can you talk a bit more about the evolution of the project—I can’t imagine you ended up in Maggie’s kitchen on the first night…

SL: I first met Shane, actually. I was at a local fair and from the moment I saw his tattoos, which were incredible, I went up to him and asked if I could take a picture. It all developed from there.

Now, at that point, I didn’t know it was going to be about domestic violence at all. I was originally doing a story about recidivism, which is what drew me to Shane in the first place (since he was an ex-convict).

The project changed fairly quickly though. From being about Shane, the photographs soon began to focus on them as a couple and then them as a family. In November, just two months after meeting them, I was at their house for the evening. That was when the domestic abuse incident happened in Maggie’s kitchen. After that, the story took a wholly new turn and Maggie became my sole subject. More recently, it’s shifted again, since the children have become the center of attention.

LC:This project has taken many twists and turns—has that been a challenge for you?

SL: I read the book, ” The Art of War,” a long time ago, and in it, Sun Tzu writes you have to have a plan but you also must be ready to abandon that plan quickly. I think that’s a great metaphor for approaching stories. You have to do research, you have to an idea but you also have to be prepared for the story to not be what you wanted it to be. Otherwise, you’re just on your own agenda and you might be missing what’s actually in front of you. You have to be kind of like water.

In this story, the key moment was when Shane attacked Maggie—obviously, that changed the complexion of my work dramatically. But there were also many smaller moments along the way that I was able to pick up on because I kept following the story over a long period of time. For example, I was with Maggie in May, and she has a new partner and she’s pregnant. I’m planning to go to her baby shower and will try my best to fly out for the birth.

LC: Does this project now feel indefinite in your mind? When does it end?

SL: I hope it doesn’t! I’ve known Maggie for three years now and I feel Im always going to be connected with her and the kids. Even if I’m not shooting the story with publication in mind, I’ll keep shooting it for myself. Since, after all, when I first started shooting the project, I didn’t have any idea it would be published…

LC: The project is ongoing but it also had a distinct form as a story of domestic abuse. In that light, what do you think it accomplished?

SL: I received a lot of emails from women who had survived their own experiences with domestic abuse. And they were consistently very thankful that someone was telling their story. I would call it a success based on that alone—totally independent from whatever other attention it received.

For example, I had one woman write to me and tell me how she had kicked her husband out of the house recently, since he had been emotionally abusive. She had been thinking about letting him back but after she saw my story, she told me, “I realized that whether I died because he beat me to death or because he emotionally battered me so badly that I ended up killing myself, the outcome would have been the same. But I’ve decided not to let him come back. Don’t ever doubt the pictures you take have an impact and help people.”

LC: Was there something special about photography that touched that woman? What’s special about the medium to you?

SL: Photography didn’t come easily to me, though I have always been a visual person. Even though it was a challenge, it was also a compulsion. A real compulsion. I tell people that if you can see yourself doing anything other than photography, do that. If you think, “Maybe I’ll be a photographer or maybe I’ll be an accountant”—go be an accountant, seriously. You can have photography in your life as a hobby but it’s just too hard of a profession to make a living in, so don’t do it unless you really have that compulsion. For me, it’s the only thing I ever knew with certainty that I wanted to do. I didn’t fall into it by accident, I was obsessed with it.

LC: Is it a relief to finish a very emotionally charged project like this or is it hard to move on?

SL: I wouldn’t know because it’s not finished! I haven’t even considered that possibility yet.

Now, there was some relief during the period when this work was winning awards and I was receiving recognition. On the flip side, I didn’t get to make much work. I didn’t have the time to actually produce stuff. I didn’t have the space in my brain to think about new projects.

After all the fuss and attention, there was also a very slow period. This was a whole different problem. I had graduated with my degree and for a few months, no one was calling. At that point, I hit a patch when I just couldn’t shoot anything. It was like writer’s block. I thought, “Well, what do I do now?” It felt so bad that I couldn’t make anything happen.

Luckily, one of the people I had photographed once told me, ” Feelings aren’t facts.” That’s become one of my mantras when I get stuck in a headspace. It’s so helpful for convincing me that if I feel bad, I won’t feel that way forever.

LC: At first glance, you’ve won some major international awards—do you still consider yourself an “emerging talent”?

SL: The real question is, “How long does it take to emerge?” It wasn’t long ago that nobody knew who I was and nobody cared about my work. I only graduated in December! I only had my first real assignment in January. Thanks to the awards that “Maggie” received, I had a big start but I haven’t fully emerged by any means.

There’s an idea that winning an award magically makes you an established photographer. That an award guarantees you’ll get all the work you need and you’ll never feel nervous or lonely or stuck. That’s just not true. There’s a huge difference between having done a single piece of work that people noticed and being a photographer who has proven, time and time again, that they can deliver. It’s only when you’re in the second category that you’ve really made it. I’m definitely not there yet.

One thing I’ve learned is that making comparisons to others never helps me. For example, sometimes I look at my friends and from where I’m sitting, it looks like they’re doing amazingly. That has been hard for me, especially when I’m in a period of not being productive. But that struggle is about me, not about them. I found that making comparisons with others is like sitting in a rocking chair—it gave me something to do, but it wasn’t getting me anywhere. I need to focus on myself if I want to keep making great work. The only constant is change so I might as well keep moving forward.

—Sara Lewkowicz, interviewed by Alexander Strecker

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.

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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