Documenting domestic violence

A Time photo slideshow obscures as much as it reveals

Wednesday, as the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act was still less than certain, Time magazine published Sara Naomi Lewkowicz’s photo essay about Maggie and Shane. Maggie, 19, is a mother of two (by another man); Shane, 31, is a convict recently released from prison. The pair had been dating for a month when Lewkowicz met them. “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,” she writes in the essay accompanying the photo slideshow.

What Lewkowicz got was an intimate portrait of domestic violence as it was perpetrated in front of her — and a chorus of criticism. After the couple left the bar, a fight escalated into an attack in which Maggie’s toddler tried to intervene.

Over and over again, commenters ask, Why didn’t the photographer drop the camera and do more to protect Maggie or her children?

“Here’s the thing: We don’t know everything she did do,” says Kelly McBride, senior faculty for ethics, reporting, and writing at the Poynter Institute. “Oftentimes when you see vivid immediate photographs, you assume the photographer did nothing. We don’t know that, [so] we fill in what we think happened… right before and right after that, and it’s almost certainly inaccurate. But we base our judgments on how we have filled it in.”

In fact, there are a few — but not enough — clues about what Lewkowicz did. For Time, she writes that she confirmed that someone called 911 and then proceeded to take pictures. At, a photography website where the essay appeared previously, Lewkowicz explains in more detail in a comment written in January:

There were two other adults there who were much larger than I am, and both individuals were too scared to do anything. It was my phone that called 911, I had to steal it back from him in order to do so. In putting my hand in his pocket, I already risked being attacked. Thankfully, I wasn’t. It will be my photographs that are used to put Shane in jail (and I have my own mixed feelings about that fact, as well.) Intervening physically would have not only put me in danger, but potentially endangered Maggie and her daughter as well, as it would have made Shane angrier.

As Lewkowicz explained to me, Shane had borrowed her phone earlier that night. When he and Maggie began to argue at a nightclub, Maggie left and took the couple’s shared cellphone with her. Shane borrowed Lewkowicz’s phone to call her and slipped it in his pocket; she didn’t retrieve it before the assault began.

To a one, viewers I talked with who learned these extra details felt at least a bit differently about Lewkowicz’s work, but those details were left out of the Time essay. Time deputy photo editor Paul Moakley says he felt his website’s version was “much clearer” for omitting those details and that Time didn’t want to duplicate the previous version.

But the magazine didn’t do itself many favors with that choice. McBride, for one, says the magazine should’ve done better. “They should have anticipated this, and they should have had the answers to the most likely questions available for the audience,” she said. Those questions have been about who else was in the house, who called 911 and how, why the photographer didn’t remove the little girl from the scene where violence was happening, and whether the photographer should have stopped taking pictures and instead tried to persuade Shane to stop, or to physically assert herself against him.

In the absence of answers, McBride says, “one of the things that happens is the public runs away with this conversation, and the journalists who could have a very significant role in the conversation end up being silent. And that’s a shame too.”

Lewkowicz says another thing happens: When images are very good, people spend several minutes looking at them. Then they confuse the length of time they considered the picture for the length of time it took to take it. “You can sit with a still photograph and look at it for really an infinite amount of time if you want to, and all of the feelings that well up and all of the reactions you have that occur in that time, can kind of obscure the fact that that photograph was taken in an instant,” she says.

That seems to be just what happened with a photo that caught Maggie’s two-year-old daughter stamping her feet and crying when she comes into the kitchen and sees her mother being beaten. Time commenters repeatedly scolded Lewkowicz for not putting down the camera and picking up the little girl to remove her from the room.

“When I took that,” Lewkowicz tells me, “I pressed the button, it took like three frames of this little girl, and the other adult was in the room picking her up and taking her out. It literally lasted a matter of seconds. It’s really easy to look at that photograph for five minutes and be horrified by it.”

Viewers fill in other blanks — and not all of them are about what the photos do or don’t show. Patti Bland, a domestic violence specialist, said the whole approach made her uncomfortable.

“It seemed to me the whole story was about the reporter,” says Bland, the director of substance abuse, training, and technical assistance for the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma and Mental Health in Chicago. “I didn’t get a sense it was centered on the victim; it seemed more a story about this is what happened to me.”

Bland didn’t know Lightbox prior to viewing the story Friday morning, so she was unfamiliar with the gallery-like format that includes short introductory essays about the photographers’ works. To Bland, like any other non-initiate, it looks like Time thinks it’s covering domestic violence with a print article and a slideshow, when its focus is on photography as a medium. A tweak or two to the text, by an editor anticipating that, would clear the matter up. But without that, Bland said, the piece seemed “a little objectionable.”

Bland also questions Time’s decision to publish Maggie’s new location. The magazine says that Maggie was leaving Shane and returning to her estranged husband, a soldier stationed in Alaska. “Exiting is a high-risk time, and keeping your location secret is critical,” Bland said. “I’ve worked on cases where people actually lost their lives when they were found.”

Moakley, Time’s photo editor, and Lewkowicz say they discussed this many times with Maggie and that she was comfortable with this information being public. Moakley adds that it was already public when Time’s essay ran, and Lewkowicz says Shane’s lawyer already knew where Maggie had gone. But, Bland says, even if the information isn’t secret, publishing it models the idea that this information is casual. “I didn’t see a good reason,” she said. “You could say she went to another state; you don’t have to say where.”

For Nancy Schwartzman, a documentary filmmaker who Googled her way to the information left out of the Time piece, the extra knowledge makes a difference. Knowing, from reading, that Lewkowicz facilitated a 911 call, Schwartzman saw her as a protector, not a passive photographer. “What I think is incredible is the photographer took a cellphone out of his pocket and had an adult call the police. That’s, ‘I’m going to put my hand in his pocket, put my safety at risk, to have someone call the police.’ If that’s not an intervention, I don’t know what is,” she said. “And she did not leave that woman alone.”

Schwartzman thinks the controversy says less about the photographer’s ethics than it does about media consumers’ inexperience thinking carefully about images. “We live in a really image-saturated culture, and we don’t have, I don’t think, very sophisticated media literacy tools,” she said. “It’s hard to tease out what’s exploitative [from] what’s educational.”

But there’s a bigger, some might say more important, concern than how viewers receive or are offered troubling images. It’s that viewers don’t want to see pictures of domestic violence, period.

“Everybody thinks that it’s obscene, that somehow it’s ethically wrong to show the real face of a battered woman,” says Donna Ferrato, a photographer who’s been documenting domestic violence for 30 years. She rejects that taboo categorically, but she also thinks her photographs, and Lewkowicz’s, are a necessity. “Unless you have these pictures… nobody gives a damn what happens to these women. Nobody.”

Ann Jones, a writer who has also been working for decades on domestic violence, thinks viewers slough their discomfort viewing realities of domestic violence off onto photographers. “I think you tend to project your own horror or helplessness onto the person who was actually there, to say, ‘Well, why didn’t that photographer do something to stop it?’” she says. “If we had a photographer taking a picture in wartime of soldiers going at it, or even a bar fight between a couple of guys, you wouldn’t expect the photographer to intervene and stop it. That is not the photographer’s job.”

Meanwhile, the critics—there are more than 1,400 comments on the piece so far—who weren’t busy assailing Lewkowicz’s journalism ethics instead accosted Maggie. Time’s comments section features a rousing reprise of “blame the victim,” from insisting that Maggie should have seen it coming and left her boyfriend, to accusing her of liking it, to calling it punishment for cheating on her estranged husband.

Which means there’s one thing all the critics seem to agree on: The only adult in the house not responsible for the violence is the man committing it.

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Jina Moore was a 2013 New Media Fellow of the International Reporting Project