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The question is a perfect example of a situation in which context, rhetorical or otherwise, prevents us from explaining ourselves; one that doesn't allow for nuance, detail, or degree of fault. By odd coincidence, the bind that photographer Sara Naomi Lewkowicz found herself in last week involved an instance of domestic abuse.
"Shane and Maggie" began as a photo essay documenting the challenges convicted felons face in finding work. Lewkowicz, a freelance photojournalist, came across the couple at a summer festival in southeastern Ohio. Shane, who's 31, had struggled with addiction and spent the majority of his adult life in jail. His criminal record, along with his heavily tattooed appearance, made finding steady work nearly impossible. His girlfriend Maggie, 19, was the mother to two small children. She was estranged from their father, who was stationed in Afghanistan. Shane and Maggie agreed to allow Lewkowicz to document them as Shane looked for work and they attempted to become a family.
In the following months, Lewkowicz captured a series of bleak moments. Finding temporary work, Shane moved Maggie and the kids into a trailer far away from her family and friends. He competed constantly with the children for her attention. Money was an incessant issue. The couple argued. And finally, one night, Shane hit Maggie. He threw her across the kitchen and pinned her against the counter, his hand around her throat. Maggie's two-year-old daughter ran naked into the room, crying and stomping her feet, before throwing herself protectively around her mother's leg.
We know how the events unfolded because Lewkowicz was there, snapping pictures. When the essay was published, first on fotovisura.com and then in the LightBox section of Time magazine, Lewkowicz was met with instant criticism. Online commenters demanded to know how she could stand idly by while a woman was being attacked. She was accused of exploiting the situation for her own gain, choosing the images over the well-being of the people involved. And indeed, it's difficult to look at the photos—especially those of Maggie's hysterical daughter—and wonder how Lewkowicz's instincts as a photographer could override her instincts as a human being.
Finding that she had to defend herself, Lewkowicz has now explained her actions that night. There were other adults in the house at the time of the attack, and Lewkowicz knew that one of them had called the police. When Maggie's daughter ran into the room, Lewkowicz snapped only three quick frames before the child was removed by another adult. She didn't physically intervene, as several commenters have suggested she should have, because at five-foot-two, Lewkowicz wouldn't have been able to stop the attack and could have risked further enraging Shane. So she took pictures, because that's what photographers do. To paraphrase Susan Sontag, those who record cannot intervene and those who intervene cannot record.
To the question, "Did you stop Shane from beating Maggie?" Lewkowicz can answer neither yes nor no. But her photographs have been entered into evidence, and Shane is likely headed back to prison. To the question, "Did you exploit Shane and Maggie?" I think the answer is, by its nature, equally complex. Can documentary ever claim to be purely noble in its intent or objective in its view? Does Lewkowicz deserve our praise, our scorn? Will her work make a difference? These are the kind of questions that simply can't be answered with a single word.