Sara Naomi Lewkowicz, a photographer and first year graduate student at Ohio University, came under a large bout of criticism last week after her photo essay "Photographer as Witness: A Portrait of Domestic Violence" was published in TIME’s Lightbox feature.
Sara’s photo essay, originally intended to be a piece exploring the fragility of post-incarceration assimilation back into society, quickly changed perspective after her subjects, 31-year-old Shane and his girlfriend, Maggie, 19, came home one night after spending some time at a bar. An argument broke out and events quickly escalated until Shane threw Maggie up against the oven, wrapped his hands around her throat and screamed, "Grow the f*ck up Maggie! Grow the f*ck up!" In subsequent photos, Maggie’s two-year-old daughter, Memphis, runs into the kitchen screaming and crying for her mother.
The photos were both powerful and disturbing.
What was perhaps more disturbing, however, was the Internet community’s reaction to this photo essay.
Over 1,600 comments have been left on the feature on TIME, many of which accuse Sara of voyeurism or enabling the violence by not stepping in to help (another adult in the house called 911). Others accuse of Maggie of "asking for it." Very few comments, however, blame Shane, the perpetrator of the violence.
The reason the Internet got mad at Sara Lewkowicz was because she had the courage to cover publicly an intimate display of violence. The Internet community, functioning individually as moral human beings, had a hard time definitively dealing with the ethical implications of viewing and capturing such a raw display of "family" violence. But instead of blaming the perpetrator, the Internet blamed both the victim and the photographer, highlighting an even more alarming element in the public discourse on domestic violence and making work like Sara’s all the more critical to freeing victims of domestic abuse.
The ethics of photojournalism and violence have been debated for decades. Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute for Journalism in St. Petersburg, Florida, argues that there is a distinct difference between publishing photographs of violence for voyeurism and for journalistic purpose. She argues that the decision to publish must be weighed carefully against the potential harm the published picture could inflict on both the subject and the general public. McBride cites the infamous photograph of the young girl stripping her clothes off while covered in napalm as an example of a picture that inflicted public and private terror without any real journalistic purpose. According to the National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics, "visual journalists act as trustees of the public."
In the case of domestic violence, one of the most widespread yet under-reported crimes in the United States, Sara contributes not only to the public good but to the personal welfare of Maggie by accurately capturing the emotion, the struggle and most importantly, the story, of the victim. As Jina Moore so aptly writes for Salon, "Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that a young, female photographer who wielded such a powerful weapon against violence in a society that prefers to keep invisible, and that so often blames victims, finds herself, too, showered with blame."
Both Maggie and Sara should be the heroes of this story, not the villains. Maggie, for having the courage to leave Shane (which unfortunately, so many victims of domestic abuse do not) and for encouraging Sara to publish the pictures, so that "women …understand that this can happen to them." Sara should be applauded for shedding light on a crime that all too often goes ignored, for a crime whose perpetrators all too often blame the victim. She should be condoned for bravely showing the Internet what the Internet doesn’t want to see — the silent crimes that take place in your neighbor’s kitchen, your colleague’s bedroom, or your child’s living room. Sara should be commended for providing a mouthpiece for Maggie, for Memphis, and for the voice of the silent victim when no one else will.
The most disappointing part of this story has been what the Internet decided to make of it. What could have been an opportunity for waves of supporters to encourage Maggie, to support her in her courageous decision to leave her violent boyfriend, turned into a cowardly display of "slut-shaming." The comments and the insults on the piece have unfortunately illuminated the long and still-untraveled road that society must traverse in elevating the discourse on domestic abuse to a level that rises above simple-minded finger pointing and empowers women to take control of their own lives.
What Maggie’s struggle and Sara’s piece have served to do, in fact, is pay a tribute to the silent victims of domestic abuse. These are largely nameless victims who endure intimate violence alone in the kitchen without the support of a photographer or the villainy of the Internet. The Internet failed both the victim and the witness this time around. We can’t let it can’t happen again.