This is what domestic violence really looks like An as-it-happened documentary from the US
‘nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?’ ‘Yeah, I need a cop to 507 G***n. There’s somebody out of control, drunk here, hitting his girlfriend… you need to hurry up he’s hurting her...’
This call was placed in late November 2012, in the small US city of Lancaster, Ohio. The ‘girlfriend’ was Maggie, a 19-year-old single mother of two.The ‘somebody’ was Shane, a 31-year-old man, recently released from prison.The photographs over the next five pages depict, among better moments between the couple, that violent night. In the house with Maggie and Shane, along with two of their friends, was the photographer and visual journalist, Sara Naomi Lewkowicz.
Lewkowicz had met the couple several months before. A photography graduate student at Ohio University, she is fascinated by one of the most revered and contested areas of photography: intimate narrative explorations of the lives of strangers. Or perhaps that’s the wrong way to put it. ‘You don’t stay a stranger for very long,’ Lewkowicz quickly corrects, on hearing the word. ‘If you’re getting that kind of access, you become much closer.’ When she met Maggie and Shane, and began to document their lives, her plan was to tell a story of recidivism: the likelihood that a person released from prison will reoffend. ‘My intention was to paint a portrait of the catch-22 many individuals find themselves in upon release, the metaphorical prison of a stigma they never seem to escape,’ she wrote about the initial project. Between classes, she’d head over to their place or meet them elsewhere. But on that night, her story as well as theirs became something different altogether.
‘I was just photographing their relationship,’ Lewkowicz recalls. ‘I didn’t know a lot about abuse. I wouldn’t say I was as cued in, consciously, to the signs: everything that happens besides the physical
‘In the beginning everything was so perfect. It was fun for me, just like a new car would be fun to go fast in, but you never think you’re going to crash’ – MAGGIE
abuse. ’The intangible ‘everything beside’ is, in some respects, Lewkowicz’s true subject: the layers of tension and intimidation, between the tenderness, that might easily have been passed over at the time but have become etched and ominous given the subsequent fact of the assault. ‘That’s what’s so frightening about abuse,’ says Lewkowicz. ‘A lot of the behaviour that ends up in retrospect being abusive was, in the beginning, romantic and tender and intimate. Very few people slap on the second date. It takes a while, it takes some real time, and almost grooming.’
As well as the photo essay, entitled ‘Shane and Maggie’, Lewkowicz produced a short documentary on Maggie and her journey in coming to terms with what happened. Maggie narrates the footage: ‘In the beginning everything was so perfect,’ she says. ‘It was fun for me, just like a new car would be fun to go fast in, but you never think you’re going to crash.’
When the project was published in Time magazine, the controversy and outrage were
instantaneous. Of the almost 2 000 comments that accompany the piece on Time’s website, many take aim either at Lewkowicz (‘Wait, so you continued to take pictures while Maggie was attacked? You didn’t try to help?’ ), or at Maggie: ‘Most women aggravate the man anyways, you women are knows as SH*t stirrers since the creation of the human species…’ [sic] ‘it is not true, as Maggie seems to suggest, that what happened to her could happen to any woman. This is a lie people tell themselves to avoid having to come to terms with the bad decisions that they made & to avoid changing their behaviour…’ ‘I’m willing to bet her children have different fathers and that she and her children are living off the system.’
Lewkowicz is quite philosophical about the motivations for this hostility.‘ I think part of the reason is a human thing,’ she says. ‘People try to think of ways they would have handled it differently. If you can blame the victim, and it’s the victim’s fault, there’s less of a chance that you or someone you love can be a victim. Because you’re going to do everything right.’ If you’d been Maggie, this would never have happened: you wouldn’t have hooked up with someone who’d been in prison, you wouldn’t have gone to the bar with him, you would’ve left him the first time you saw his temper, you would never have let him near your kids, you’d know better than to argue with a guy like that, when he was violent, you’d talk him down.
And then if you’d been Lewkowicz, you would have done everything right too. ‘I think when people look at the photos they identify either with Maggie and Shane, or they identify with me as the witness,’ she says. ‘Nobody wants to feel like if they were in that position they wouldn’t know what to do. Everyone wants to fantasise that they would be the big cowboy hero in their own movie.’ You would have mediated, you would’ve stopped him, you would have fought back, you would’ve taken Maggie somewhere else, you would’ve comforted the children, you would’ve found help faster, and you certainly wouldn’t have dreamt of standing there, taking pictures.
‘I tried to find a way to walk the line between doing my job as a photographer and doing my job as a human being,’ says Lewkowicz. ‘Which is the reason I decided to take my phone back [Shane had taken it away] and have someone
‘Nobody wants to feel like if they were in that position they wouldn’t know what to do. Everyone wants to fantasise that they would be the big cowboy hero in their own movie’ – LEWKOWICZ
call 911.’ When the backlash first began, after the publication in Time, Lewkowicz felt very defensive, and wanted to constantly explain and justify her reaction that night. But now she wants to let that defensiveness go. ‘When I have people confronting me in person, I usually say, “If you’re more angry at me [because] you’re having to look at these pictures than you are at the fact that this happened, then you need to reassess a few things.”’
Lewkowicz eventually wants her series to be used as a tool to help people in abusive relationships. ‘We talk about abuse but we don’t really teach young people healthy relationship behaviour. We don’t teach them what kind of language is abusive. We don’t teach them that blocking somebody from leaving a room is abusive behaviour. We only teach them the tip of the iceberg.’ With hindsight, Maggie could see that Shane had been aggressive and domineering before he raised a hand. ‘A lot of warning signs that I noticed were Shane pushing people out of my life, kind of isolating me, moving me out of town,’ she explains in the video.‘He would say things like, “I love you so much, I’ll love you more than anyone else will love you.” To kind of get in my head:“Wow, maybe he will. Maybe he is the only person who will love me that way.”’ (One month into their relationship, Shane had Maggie’s name tattooed in bold black letters across his neck.)
Another reason for the anger directed at Lewkowicz might be our tendency to blame the messenger – as if the photographs themselves make the abuse exist, and if they didn’t exist, it wouldn’t either. After all, it is hard to look at the series: to have to see and acknowledge the fact of domestic violence, and to recall that incidents like this are frequent and pervasive.
‘We talk about abuse, but we don’t really teach young people healthy relationship behaviour… We only teach them the tip of the iceberg’ – LEWKOWICZ
It’s a scene that plays out in countless homes, in every country, day after day (and often without the swift and well-trained police response that intervened to help Maggie). It’s a scene that often ends fatally. The UN estimates that, around the world, at least one in three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or abused, most often by someone she knows. A woman is more likely to die at the hands of her intimate partner than anyone else.A 2012 study by the SA Medical Research Council (using crime statistics from 2009) found that in South Africa a woman was killed by a partner every eight hours. This harrowing number is an improvement on the stats from 1999, which indicated that a woman was killed by her partner every six hours in that year. (While statistically less frequent, men can of course also be the victims of violence and abuse from their intimate partners.)
In many respects, Maggie’s story is an inspiring exception to the grim rule. The night depicted in Lewkowicz’s photographs was the last time Maggie ever saw Shane. It is rare, and incredibly difficult, for someone to have such an intense resolve to escape their abuser.The assault is often part of a broader complicated relationship that contains interdependence, happiness, love: there is always the tempting belief that an incidence of violence was anomalous, that it might even have even been an twisted expression of devotion, or that, perhaps, it wasn’t so bad after all.
Having an unequivocal document of what happened might have helped Maggie accept its severity and prompt her need to leave.‘It’s not really even so much about the incident that happened. It’s about the long term,’ she says in the video. ‘How did I not see that? How could I be so stupid? How could I let that happen to my family? The feeling never really goes away.’
Maggie made her way up to Alaska where she reunited with her children’s father for a while, but now she has moved back to Ohio, on her own, and she’s currently training to be a nurse.
‘I think now the most important thing for her is to figure it out herself and not have to rely on a partner to support her,’ Lewkowicz says (she visited Maggie twice in Alaska, and now sees her often in Ohio). ‘She has to rescue herself at this point. And she’s doing a really good job. It’s kind of amazing to see how empowered she’s become in the last year.’
To Lewkowicz’s knowledge, Shane has returned to prison, allegedly for assaulting an intimate partner. Perhaps her story is about recidivism too, after all.
As Shane and Maggie
continue to fight, Memphis runs into the room and refuses
to leave Maggie’s side. She witnesses much of the assault on her mother.‘Please Shane, let me take her
out of here,’ Maggie pleads.‘She shouldn’t
be seeing this.’
Opposite Maggie and Shane’s courtship has been brief but intense. They met through his sister before his most recent prison stint and became close friends. Maggie says Shane called her every day from prison, and upon his release they began to date. This page The stress of Shane’s unemployment and raising two young children on very little money takes its toll on Maggie and Shane’s relationship. As the newness of their relationship wears off, they begin to argue more frequently.
Opposite At one point, Shane picks Maggie up and throws her back into the kitchen as she tries to run out of the room. Left Shane pleads with Maggie not to let the police take him into custody, crying out,‘Please, Maggie, I love you, don’t let them take me, tell them I didn’t do this!’