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 Fotovisura.com, 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.