Reflections on a Reflection on Domestic Violence
So recently a young photographer, Sara Naomi Lewkowicz, took a series of 35 photographs of a young couple named Maggie and Shane, and her two children. The photos were eventually featured in TIME’s Lightbox as “Photographer as Witness: A Portrait of Domestic Violence”. (If you click the photos, you can see them full size with the TIME captions). She had originally intended to follow Shane’s struggle to find work as an ex-felon with facial tattoos, but ended up taking these pictures instead as she witnessed a fight following a karaoke night that turned violent.
There was some controversy after the photos were published, blaming the photographer for making the “unethical” choice of not stopping the fight, and instead using the fight as material for her story. There’s been a lot of fighting, name-calling, and rage - basically all directed at the photographer.
There are elements of truth to their criticism; she could definitely have done more. She did call 911, a detail that the TIME feature decided to not include. We’ve seen similar criticism, to a different extent, of different photographers covering everything from the recent death of the man pushed in front of the oncoming train in the NYC Subway to the Pulitzer Prize winning photo of the starving African child photographed by Kevin Carter. In the case of Carter, the toddler he photographed was close to death, and collapsed on the ground trying to crawl to a food center in Sudan during the 1993 famine. A vulture perched in the background, and it was pretty clear that death was imminent. Carter took the photo, but didn’t help the child after because journalists had been instructed not to get involved because of the risk of disease, etc..
One thing that personally bothered me about the negative response to Lewkowicz’s photographs how much blame was being thrown at her. She should have stopped the beating, she should have helped Maggie, she should have kept the fight from happening. Realistically, as a young female herself, Lewkowicz, a young woman with a small build, probably wasn’t physically strong enough to take Shane on. She did actually call 911. There were also two other adult male friends of Shane’s in the house who did nothing. While there are certainly ethical implications for photojournalists like Lewkowicz and Carter who end up profiting on suffering, I think it’s interesting how much of a villain Lewkowicz is in people’s minds. (There’s a Salon article that deals with this much better than I can.)
Personally, I think this is another reflection of our society’s mad insistence on blaming violence against women on women. While only idiots and extremists are actually willing to blame women for being physically beaten, we often see sort of caveat-blame along the lines of “She should have known better than to be with a violent man”, “She knew what was coming”, “She shouldn’t have let herself get in that situation”. As a society, we are very willing to blame women for their own beatings by telling them that really, they should have seen it coming. This is harmful logic that ignores the factors that contribute to the helplessness of these women. There’s lots of overlap here with rape culture and the victim-blaming mentality.
I think that in Lewkowicz’s case, we’re seeing an extension of victim-blaming mentality onto the third party, and it makes me a little sick to my stomach that we’re so willing to blame everyone but the abuser for the abuse. Personally, I feel ethically conflicted about photojournalists as potentially exploitative observers of suffering, and that definitely taps into my own feelings about domestic violence. However, I think it’s important for us to take a step back and deconstruct our reactions to domestic violence and issues/stories surrounding it, and I guess that’s what this post has been about.