There’s a disturbing set of pictures currently showing on TIME, taken by Sara Naomi Lewkowicz, that in part document a woman being assaulted by her boyfriend:


In the article the clearly commited Lewkowicz comments that:

Shane attacked Maggie, throwing her into chairs, pushing her up against the wall and choking her in front of her daughter, Memphis.

After I confirmed one of the housemates had called the police, I then continued to document the abuse — my instincts as a photojournalist began kicking in. If Maggie couldn’t leave, neither could I …

The incident raised a number of ethical questions. I’ve been castigated by a number of anonymous internet commenters who have said that I should have somehow physically intervened between the two. Their criticism counters what actual law enforcement officers have told me — that physically intervening would have likely only made the situation worse, endangering me, and further endangering Maggie.

I totally agree with Lewkowicz that physically getting involved is not a good idea.  But I’m also interested at what point she decided to put down her camera and find out if the police had been called? Clearly it was later than the person who decided to put the call in. That takes time.

It is of course a very difficult situation and there are no easy answers. On the one hand photographers like to think of themselves as invisible and on the other hand we know that’s simply not true, that by being there you are having an effect on the situation. Take for example the distressed child, what does she make of the fact that a woman is taking pictures whilst her Mum is being choked?

I would also take issue with Lewkowicz’s definition of a photojournalists instincts.  I have worked with many fine journalists who I’m pretty sure would have taken a different position; would have put down the camera and picked up the child or gone for help, and they too would have been working from instinct.

That is not to say that in anyway Lewkowicz did the wrong thing. Just that as a ‘photojournalist’ she didn’t categorically do the the right thing either.

As I’m sure she would admit herself its complex, and sometimes there are more important things then getting the shot, even if your career depends upon it.

  • Antonio Jaén Osuna

    I agree this is a bit of a Kevin Carter situation. Or the recent one in the NY underground. Sometimes, you have the camera and hide behind it not thinking that is reality what you have in front of you. I reckon that is one of the biggest and most dangerous risks of photographers: they lose contact with reality. It is easy to forget yourself as a part of a context and sometimes that is why photographers have lost their lives.

    I always remember the story that old man told me while cruising me in his little boat through crocodiles in Ethiopia: ‘it was there’ pointing at some spot in the river. ‘I was on the boat and he [a German photographer] was in the water taking pictures of the crocodiles. At some point he realized that crocodiles were coming to eat him and that he was in danger. But it was too late. He was trapped in the mud.” I also remember how I didn’t take more pictures that morning, just in case.

    However, as I am not defending the photographer, it is always important to be aware that sometimes it is in your hands doing things right, instead than portraying wrong ones.

  • Hasi

    I think it’s important to bear in mind that the photographer was British. If that person were of a nationality which perhaps is more developed and closer in time to a modern homo sapien she probably would have responded entirely differently.

    • Actually I think she’s American.

    • R

      wow hasi- you use this story for a gratuitous bit of racism, classy.

      • Has is troll. Best ignored. He won’t be appearing again here.

  • Thomas

    The question that pops up in my mind is actually, how did she get close to these people? Did she say to the woman “Hi, I’m doing a story on domestic abuse, could you help me out?”, to which the woman theoretically replied “Sure, I have a partner that beats me, stick around, I’m sure it’ll happen again.” It is these little details that blow my mind, besides the photos themselves, which are amazing. Controversy notwithstanding, hats off to this photographer for pulling it off. I do not think you can get more documentary than this.

    • HI Tomaz,

      I’m sure this project did not start out about being about domestic violence.

      The photos and commitment to the story are powerful.

  • Interesting debate, around a difficult situation. I’ve followed the twitter comments on this, a few from people who seem unable to differentiate between a perceived criticism of the photographer involved, and the duck’s desire to discuss the issues surrounding ‘intervention’ and the circumstances that somehow permit an ‘objective observer’ to be witness to, and record on camera, serious domestic violence (which incidentally may be a criminal act).

    This particular set of circumstances underlines for me precisely why this profession of ‘documentary photography/photojournalism’ requires continual debate around ethics, intervention and responsibility, and that’s even more important today when we are all smartphone toting observers and communicators (potentially ‘journalists’). I guess anyone picking up a camera and inserting themselves in this situation may call themselves a ‘documentary photographer’ or a ‘photojournalist’. What responsibilities does that confer? To tell the story without becoming involved? To intervene at some point? And at what point might that be? Is there in fact a right time? Is it your prerogative to decide what is ‘the right time’? What if the subject asks for help? Do you say no? If you refuse to help does that make you a poor citizen but a committed photojournalist? If you do agree to help does that make you an upstanding citizen but compromise your status as a journalist? Does anyone care either way? (Except perhaps the subject?)

    There is another profession where an individual may find themselves in a similar predicament, Social Work. The difference is that the ‘author’ would be holding a pen, instead of holding a camera to record the situation (a camera would be a breach of confidentiality, and likely in violation of various pieces of legislation involving the identification of ‘clients’ but particularly identification of minors, another troubling issue).

    Same circumstances different job. But the role of Social Worker comes with a tight legislative framework, there to protect everyone involved. For Social Workers knowingly going into such situations there will also have been devised protocols for dealing with difficult outcomes and violent behaviour, and clear courses of action designed to protect not just themselves but also the vulnerable people in the situation, and naturally with primary consideration for those unable to defend themselves, especially children.

    However, here’s the fundamental difference and one worth considering for a moment, a Social Worker would very likely be deemed to have ‘failed’ if the situation evolved to the state depicted in the picture above (the sure sign of Social Work ‘success’ is ‘no problem’). In photojournalism the outcome recorded is actually the opposite – a ‘success’ of storytelling, in so far as it clearly portrays the problem of domestic abuse in the most dramatic of ways. (At least one twitter commentators has stated this is a good thing, that such issues need exposing and airing, and thats merely an observation of mine, not a criticism of that commentator).

    And I’m not for a moment suggesting the role of Social Worker and photographer are in any way similar, each has different responsibilities, but the crux of this is that despite those varying ‘responsibilities’ each could be confronted by similar events, and its what the appropriate response should be for each, and why, that interests me. Are there more similarities than differences? You could argue there are not.

    And there’s the predicament. Its not as clear cut as it might seem, as my lecturers in Social Work continually underlined for me, making the point forcefully that having accepted the role of Social Worker and the ‘protections’ afforded you as a practitioner, you assume a considerable degree of responsibility for the people you work with, but that ultimately any ‘interpretation’ of the huge number of grey areas within the scope of this legislative framework would only really be tested in a court of law if you ended up witness to a serious domestic violence assault. If that assault led to serious injury to a client, or even death, your culpability and what you did, or did not do, would be tested in court, and there would very likely be no defence of ‘impartial observer’. You would be deemed to have had some degree of responsibility for preventing the outcome and it would be the court’s duty to decide whether you in fact acted ‘reasonably’. You might have, or you might not, but the point is, others will decide that for you.

    Photojournalism has an equal number of such grey areas, each leading to equally problematic outcomes,, and thats precisely why there needs to be an appetite for debate around the nuances of such situations as portrayed above. If we are prepared to produce, and consume the outputs of, such work, we need to be prepared equally to confront the complex moral and ethical (if not actually ‘legal’) conundrums it throws up. Like the issue of the abuse it portrays, its not ‘someone else’s problem’, it’s our problem as individuals and as a society (as consumers) and one we need to be prepared to debate with a degree of conviction.

    Women like Maggie, and children like Memphis, deserve nothing less.

    I’ve written a lot here, and I’m not entirely sure I’ve added much to the debate. It’s complex. It needs talking about.

    There’s more talking about it here: http://www.npr.org/2012/12/06/166666261/documenting-tragedy-the-ethics-of-photojournalism

  • Thanks for John and in particular these words:

    ‘If we are prepared to produce, and consume the outputs of, such work, we need to be prepared equally to confront the complex moral and ethical (if not actually ‘legal’) conundrums it throws up. Like the issue of the abuse it portrays, its not ‘someone else’s problem’, it’s our problem as individuals and as a society (as consumers) and one we need to be prepared to debate with a degree of conviction.’

  • Mathieu Asselin

    I believe the questions are: what is the propose of images like this? Are this type of images necessary to tell the story or are they the reckless chase of “strong” images not mater what? What about the viewer, is this a reflection of the insatiable need for real violence like Jerry Springer or live drama like Oprah or this truly awakes compassion and empathy on the subject.

    My personally believe, maybe I am wrong, that this images are no necessary to tell the story and that this is more about the photographer and the viewer that about the actual victim. I will say that it’s belong more to the voyeurism needs of spectators and the photographer feeling the adrenaline rush of being at the right place at the right moment type of thing. I am wondering as well how much the presence of the camera have to do with the escalation of violence. Is well know that the presence of cameras can fire or elevate violence to already tense situation. Me? I never being in a situation like that, but I believe putting the camera down is a gesture of ” I don’t agree with what is going on, contrary to this kept shooting is a type of involuntary way of agreeing with the scene…

  • Lee

    Thank you for starting this discussion. I’ve followed some discussions via Facebook and Twitter, and find it scary that many professionals in the industry seem closed off to having this conversation…it reeks of a herd mentality and unquestioning outlook that goes against what the profession stands for.

    • Hi Lee.

      Thanks for this. Its true that some pros don’t want to have the discussion. How can the rights and wrongs of taking pictures be off limits to discussion? And why should anyone dictate who is best placed to discuss these things?

      I don’t get it.

  • Sam Cornwell

    What doesn’t seem to have been discussed is the role the photographer played. The couple and child may have grown used to Lewkowicz being there, but not so much that she was invisible. It is not inconceivable to think that the man’s actions were a direct result of the photographer being there, but not in the way we’d all suspect at first. Knowing there was a third party watching and recording his actions he may have played up to his role as the aggressor for the sake of the camera, oblivious of the consequences and maybe (I say with dread) out of some kind of domineering male pride.

    NB. I commend Lewkowicz for the photography. She photographed a difficult situation and in her way ‘intervened’ by taking them. Being an optimist I’d like to think that whatever choices she made were the right ones in her mind at the time.

  • Fuck off…

    This is stupid… I am sorry but if I can’t talk someone out of not hurting another human being in those kinds of circumstances then I am a wretched and pathetic person…

    Me? I would have scooped the kid up and biffed the guy on the nose… End of story…

    Photojournalism my arse… taking photos of a man bashing a woman is just puerile…I am not interested in seeing the deconstruction of a relationship for the sake of trying to win a completely uninterested audience..

    The photographer is creepy… that she could even justify leaving a kid alone in those circumstance is bullshit…hey my pictures and me are not so important as a child’s life…

    And if she was really in the moment of the heat of something like that? Then she wouldn’t be checking with a flatmate to find out whether the cops had been called…

    Judging from absolutely no knowledge of the background story nor even reading the comments here and only seeing one photo this looks like an anger management issue rather than a big bad “I am going to fuck you over’ number…

    While domestic violence is wrong please give me a break… I am sure the photographer could have intervened to stop this from happening simply by leaving the room..with the child in tow…

    So why hang around shooting something that leaves a small child traumatised?

    Or should I dare ask the question? Who is the story about? The photographer or the family she is shooting?

duckrabbit is a production company formed by radio producer/journalist Benjamin Chesterton and photographer David White. We specialize in digital storytelling.

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