Time Runs Photos of a Domestic Violence Incident. Should the Photographer Have Stepped In?

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Feb. 27 2013 2:26 PM

Scenes From an Abusive Relationship

French feminists lie on the ground to simulate violence against women. It's not often that we see images of the real thing.

Photo by Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

Before reading further, go take a look at this harrowing photo essay over at Time illustrating one couple's relationship as it descends into domestic abuse. The photographer, Sara Naomi Lewkowicz, met the couple—Shane, a 31-year-old ex-convict, and Maggie, a 19-year-old mother of two—at a local festival in Ohio. Lewkowicz began documenting their relationship with the intent to illustrate what life is like for an ex-con like Shane, but the story took a darker turn when, after a night out at a bar, Shane abused Maggie.

Here's Lewkowicz writing about what it was like bearing witness to Shane's violence:


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.

In addition to giving us a rare (and awful) glimpse at a domestic violence incident in progress, Lewkowicz's photo essay raises the perennial Journalism Ethics 101 question of whether a photojournalist witnessing violence in action should act to prevent it. The debate over photojournalist-as-bystander was stoked in December, when the New York Post ran this cover photo of a man struggling to get off the subway tracks just before he was fatally hit by a train. Like the photographer of that event, Lewkowicz writes that she's been criticized for not intervening in Shane's attack:

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.

But this story is different from the Post cover photo in an important way. While there is little social value to be gained from seeing a photo of a man about to die on the subway tracks—no one needs to show us that it's bad to fall in front of a speeding train—many people remain ignorant (or in denial) about the real state of domestic abuse in this country. Voyeurism with an intent to spur social justice, not just to provoke, has a different name: journalism.

Emma Roller is a Slate editorial assistant. Follow her on Twitter.


Justice Ginsburg’s Crucial Dissent in the Texas Voter ID Case

The Jarring Experience of Watching White Americans Speak Frankly About Race

How Facebook’s New Feature Could Come in Handy During a Disaster

The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented

Sprawl, Decadence, and Environmental Ruin in Nevada

View From Chicago

You Should Be Able to Sell Your Kidney

Or at least trade it for something.

Space: The Next Generation

An All-Female Mission to Mars

As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.

Terrorism, Immigration, and Ebola Are Combining Into a Supercluster of Anxiety

The Legal Loophole That Allows Microsoft to Seize Assets and Shut Down Companies

  News & Politics
Oct. 19 2014 1:05 PM Dawn Patrol Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s critically important 5 a.m. wake-up call on voting rights.
Business Insider
Oct. 19 2014 11:40 AM Pot-Infused Halloween Candy Is a Worry in Colorado
Oct. 17 2014 5:26 PM Judge Begrudgingly Strikes Down Wyoming’s Gay Marriage Ban
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 17 2014 4:23 PM A Former FBI Agent On Why It’s So Hard to Prosecute Gamergate Trolls
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
Brow Beat
Oct. 20 2014 8:32 AM Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy—and a Mess. Can the Movies Fix It?
Future Tense
Oct. 17 2014 6:05 PM There Is No Better Use For Drones Than Star Wars Reenactments
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 20 2014 7:00 AM Gallery: The Red Planet and the Comet
Sports Nut
Oct. 16 2014 2:03 PM Oh What a Relief It Is How the rise of the bullpen has changed baseball.