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 Fotovisura.com, 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.”