The art of disappearing in a room

All photos by Sara Naomi Lewkowicz

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz’ first internship, as an aspiring photojournalist fresh out of college in 2007, was at Inside Lacrosse magazine in Baltimore. When the internship ended, Lewkowicz stayed in Charm City, working as a nanny, waiting tables, and freelancing for the Baltimore Sun. On tax forms, she wrote “photographer” for occupation, but photography didn’t pay the bills; even with her other jobs, she could barely cover her rent.

Around that time, she befriended Alex, a 20-year-old stripper who was addicted to heroin. Initially, Lewkowicz saw Alex as a stereotypical junkie, but became less judgmental as she got to know her better. Eventually, Lewkowicz asked Alex if she could photograph her. “I don’t want to judge you, I just really want to understand,” she told her. Over the next few months, Lewkowicz shot a series of unsparing photographs: a close-up of Alex grimacing as she searches for a vein in her forearm; Alex shooting up in a bathroom stall during a shift at the strip club, dressed only in a bra; a bird’s-eye view of her stripping on stage, laying in a neon spotlight.

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Lewkowicz’ photos of Alex are not the first or most shocking photos of heroin addiction, but they showcase the photographer’s narrative skills. The series also helped her get into graduate school at Ohio University, where she shot “Shane and Maggie,” a harrowing series on domestic abuse that blew up in early 2013 when it was published on Time’s LightBox.

Lewkowicz met 19-year-old Maggie and her boyfriend, Shane, the first week she moved to Ohio, at a corn festival. She kept in touch with the couple and Maggie’s two children, documenting Shane’s reentry into the community after a decade in and out of prison. But the story changed course, when one night, about two months after she’d met them, Shane and Maggie started arguing at a karaoke bar. Maggie stormed out, and later, at a friend’s house, a drunk and angry Shane assaulted Maggie in front of her two-year-old daughter, Memphis.

Lewkowicz’ camera caught the assault in stop-motion: Maggie and Shane face each other while Maggie points to the door; Shane stands enraged and shirtless in front of the TV in Hulk-like stance, yelling; Shane grabs for Maggie’s hand as she flees; Shane holds Maggie against the kitchen counter, choking her.

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There’s no blood or dramatic bruising, but the series is brutal. In retrospect, there were plenty of warning signs in the months leading up to that violent night, and the camera captured those, too, in the way Shane interacts with Maggie’s 4-year-old son, the way he invades Maggie’s space, the giant tattoo of Maggie’s name imprinted across his neck.

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The series won several awards, including the Sony World Photo Photographer of the Year award and the Alexia Foundation’s student photographer award; it was exhibited at the prominent Perpignan photo festival. But the pictures also received heated criticism, with many viewers questioning why Lewkowicz didn’t intervene. In the photo that brought the most backlash, Shane has Maggie pinned against the kitchen counter, while a naked Memphis, slightly blurred because she’s in motion, runs towards them.

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“In that moment, there was a part of me that was like, ‘Get the frying pan and hit him in the head with it,’ ” says Lewkowicz. But Shane was angry, violent, and much bigger than she was. Instead, she made sure one of the adults in the house called the police and planned to wake the neighbors if things escalated further.

The photos compel viewers to wonder what they would have done in her place. For those who have never encountered such violence in real life, it’s unnerving. “If you don’t have a writer scripting it, violence is not orderly,” says Lewkowicz. “Sometimes there isn’t a great solution.”

While she’s glad to have drawn attention to domestic violence, Lewkowicz hopes her photos help viewers see her subjects as multi-faceted people, not just representations of an issue. Lewkowicz’ ability to see the human, not only the story, is one of her strengths as a photojournalist, giving her photos a raw, intimate quality. “Objectivity is kind of bullshit,” she says. “I feel like honesty is a way better policy to have. You can’t be objective if you care about somebody.”

That intimacy is on display in Lewkowicz’ most recent assignment, for New York Magazine’s The Cut, but it is of a different, happier variety. She photographed Kate Elazegui and Emily Kehe, a New York lesbian couple who were both pregnant at the same time, and gave birth four days apart. The first few photos feature Kate and Emily at home in the final days of their pregnancies, with matching ripe bellies: brushing their teeth, in the tub, lying in bed. In one, Emily is in the bathtub, her belly breaking the bubbly surface, while Kate sits nearby, legs outstretched, contemplating her own belly.

Jody Quon, New York Magazine’s photo director, and the editor for the piece, had seen Lewkowicz’ work several years previously and was struck by it. “What I loved about Sara,” she says, was “her ability to disappear in the room.”

The accompanying story, told in Kate’s and Emily’s own words, is remarkable in its own right. The couple waited until they could get legally married before trying to get pregnant. They picked a donor (whom they nicknamed Keanu because he looked like Keanu Reeves) and agreed that Kate, who was three years older, would try first. After six frustrating months, Kate was on her last attempt when the doctor suggested that Emily begin insemination. The couple agreed, and within weeks both women were pregnant. It was an unexpected, but welcome, turn of events.

The final photo in the series is an unposed family portrait, with Kate and Emily both cradling their infant sons, Reid and Eddie. “Sure, two babies is a lot—but we have four boobs,” Kate notes.

Meanwhile, Lewkowicz has continued photographing Alex, the former heroin addict who has now been clean for two-and-a-half years. Lewkowicz had planned to hold the photo series for as long as a decade before publishing, since the story is far from over, but decided she could share it in increments. Earlier this month, Refinery29 published a series of photos chronicling five years of Alex’s life. “It’s [about] the trajectory,” Lewkowicz says. “You get to go on this journey with her, and you get to see her pull through.”

Lewkowicz visits Alex in Baltimore each year, on the anniversary of her sobriety. “I would consider her a close friend,” says Lewkowicz, but she doesn’t see that as a conflict. “The relationship has always been predicated on me honestly documenting her life.”

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Chava Gourarie is a freelance writer based in New York and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @ChavaRisa