Earlier this year, photographer Sara Lewkowicz caught a moment of domestic violence on camera. Lewkowicz had been working the tedious documentary slog, spending long days and nights with a couple named Maggie and Shane, hoping to cull from their daily lives images that would tell a story about
Instead, Lewkowicz ended up with images of abuse. Six of her essay’s 47 frames show the escalation of Shane’s anger, from neck-popping rage to physical violence against Maggie. Another 12 show the aftermath—the arrival of the police, Shane’s arrest, the officers documenting Maggie’s bruises, Maggie’s emotional struggles in the hours and days after the incident.
When Time magazine published the photos In February, the uproar was raucous—and criticism of Lewkowicz was vicious. Commenters accused her of using exploiting a moment in which she should have put down her camera and helped.
Lewkowicz—and Maggie—saw it differently. In February, Lewkowicz told me, “[T]he big thing I thought about [was], if he was willing to do that with a camera there, what would he be willing to do if they were alone? That scares me to think about.”
Today, Lewkowicz, 30, sees the pictures she took taking on new lives. Starting, in fact, with Maggie’s life. “Most victims of abuse,” Lewkowicz says, “can justify in their heads why it wasn’t that bad. There’s no visual record telling them, ‘No, it really was that bad.’ Maggie was able to look at the pictures and process them and be like, ‘Yeah, it really was that bad.’”
Maggie left her abuser and moved across the country. She’s been contacted by strangers who saw the pictures, Lewkowicz says, most of whom offer support and encouragement. There are, of course, a few trolls, even in the analog world. But the attention these pictures brought to the problem of domestic violence has also influence Maggie, who is now considering moving into a new career in social work or other support services for survivors. “She’s taking steps to get her and her family into a good place,” Lewkowicz says.
Lewkowicz’s pictures have taken on another life as an advocacy tool, as well. Social workers and teachers have contacted her about using the photo series in seminars and workshops about domestic violence. That crossover from the neutral observation of journalism to agenda-pushing territory might make some traditional reporters nervous. But Lewkowicz eschews the problem, separating the photographer from the photographs. “The photos … are what they are. They speak for themselves; I can only do so much speaking through them.”
The aversion to ego complicates the attention Lewkowicz, who’s worked for newspapers and now studies photojournalism at the graduate level, has received. She’s won some of the most prestigious titles an emerging photographer can for her photos of Maggie and Shane, including an Alexia Foundation student grant and the Remi Ochlik Award, given at a world-renowned photography festival in in Perpignan, France. But she insists, “It’s not you that’s important, it’s the work. You as an individual are just some dude. And I as an individual and as a photographer haven’t earned the kind of acknowledgment you get as an individual photographer.”
Which takes her right back to where she wants to be: Maggie’s living room. Life is more complicated with Maggie’s move and Lewkowicz’s Alexia Foundation apprenticeship in London. But Lewkowicz still visits Maggie once or twice a year, and with Facebook and internet chat tools, the two “probably talk every day at this point,” she says.
That continued relationship has given her photographs yet another life, one in which the domestic violence series that brought Lewkowicz notoriety are but a chapter of a longer, more meditative work. Lewkowicz is continuing to document the family. Maggie now lives with her once-estranged husband, who fought in Afghanistan. They’re getting ready for their next move, but both of them struggle with the trauma and violence they have survived. It’s these parallel, interior stories Lewkowicz most wants to tell. She says, “It’s a kind of comparison of private wars and public wars, the wars we fight overseas and the wars we fight in our kitchen.”