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!’

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