How A Photographer Happened Into The War Against Women

Last December, a young photographer from Ohio, Sara Naomi Lewkowicz, wrote me an email:

Date: Fri, Dec 14, 2012 at 8:38 PM
Subject: From an Ohio U Grad Student…documenting domestic abuse

Ms. Ferrato,

My name is Sara Naomi Lewkowicz, I’m a first-year grad student at Ohio University in Athens. I wanted to reach out to you because, firstly, you’re one of my favorite photographers, and I saw you speak at Look3 and it was incredible, but also because I had an experience this year that I wanted to share with someone who I know has been through something similar.

I had been documenting a couple for several months, and one night, the male half of the equation began beating his girlfriend in front of me. I photographed the attack, and it’s been something I’ve been sitting with trying to process for some time now. I have very mixed feelings about the whole situation. I guess I was wondering, if you weren’t incredibly busy and had the time, if you would mind discussing it a bit with me, via e-mail or phone. I’m home in NYC on break for the next month, and I would love a chance to talk with you, if you were inclined.

Again, I’ve admired your work for some time now, and I thought I would take a chance and reach out to you, since there are few out there who would understand the experience I just had the way I know you would.

Thanks in advance, have a wonderful weekend.


Sara Lewkowicz

It seemed like a simple request:  aspiring photographer wants to connect with a veteran photojournalist. But Sara’s photographs were different, something I had been waiting to see realized for thirty years. She had done what the Director of Photography at LIFE magazine told me when he looked at my photographs of a couple fighting the bathroom . I had done the impossible, he said, because he thought domestic violence was an unphotographable subject. And I said, “nothing is unphotographable”. Sara was for real. She had taken pictures with power that could shake the world out of a stupor about violence against women.  I called a team of magical thinkers: Jim Estrin, NY Times Lens Blog, and, photography director, Karen Mullarkey.  Together we helped birth Sara’s story about a battered woman who didn’t go back.

Sara did not set out to document domestic violence although she had read my book, Living with the Enemy, in school. But she was shooting Shane and his girlfriend, Maggie, to document his attempt to overcome a previous prison stint.

After several weeks Sara saw the moody and controlling side of Shane. When tension reached its peak, Sara was already shooting. When she realized Shane’s plan to get Maggie in the basement and beat her without interference, Sara reached into Shane’s pocket  for her own cell phone which he’d taken earlier that night. Then she passed it to a room mate silently mouthing instructions to call 911.

With the police on the way, Sara showed the instincts of a combat photographer.  Without these  images taken during Shane’s meltdown there would be no proof. Most likely, Shane would have gotten away with his assault on his woman. Bolstered by Sara’s presence and knowing that she could prove the assault had happened Maggie pressed charges in spite of  Shane pleading with her for another chance.  Already Maggie had learned the biggest lessons from her first time as a battered woman: press charges; never go back. In one night, Maggie became unbeatable.

If every battered woman had a brave photographer like Sara beside her there would be far fewer men getting away with terrorizing the women who love them. These photographs make it impossible to deny the  horror of domestic violence.

Sara came to me for guidance. After our first meeting, I was truly inspired.

It is an honor to present the story of Maggie through the eyes of Sara Naomi Lewkowitz.

Then I encourage you to read the hard hitting journalist, Ann Jones‘ story in Tom’s Dispatch.  Nobody says it better than Ann Jones, this is really important journalism. Watch Sara’s powerful real life video on Time Magazine LIGHTBOX and absorb the deeper meaning of why men who beat women must be held accountable.

-Donna Ferrato NYC 3.30.13




domestic dispute


attempt at reasoning

get back here


domestic violence

child protecting mother

filing police report

arrested for domestic violence

photographing assault evidence

examining for brusing

sick from overwhelming emotional pain

arranging an exit strategy

Sleeping children

crying woman

Photos copyright Sara Naomi Lewkowicz

March 28, 2013 21 Comments
  • Julie Owens

    Wow, these are incredibly powerful images. Thanks you Sara & Donna for making these available and sharing the hell that Maggie & her child (and so many of us) experienced. It is raw and ugly – horrifying -but the power of these images will resonate for a long time. I would love to use them in training sessions with permission if possible.

  • Dawni Littlefield-Seymore

    Grrr…they just stir up my passion to fight against DV. The pictures were very real and so needed for people to see if they have never been personally touched by such violence. Keep up the good work ladies. dawni

  • Jess Clementine Bollaert


  • Meg Henson Scales

    Muchissimo gracias! Amazing and vitally necessary.

  • Kim

    While interesting, I think these photos feed into one of the myths of domestic violence – that it happens to “other people” – tattooed, pierced, working-class folks.

    • joannatovaprice

      the only problem with that is that these are real photos of real people, meaning in your haste to talk about othering, you’re actually othering the actual people in the actual photographs. working-class, tattooed, pierced individuals don’t deserve to be othered just because conservative lookin, rich people experience domestic violence as well.

    • mradclyffe

      No, it happens to *everyone* in all walks of life, tattooed or not, working and middle class, rich and poor, black, white, Asian, gay, straight, and everyone between – whatever or whoever you are. To dismiss it as a myth of happening to lower class people with a pierced lip and a tattooed forearm is naive at best and dangerous at worst.

    • Donna Ferrato

      its too bad if people cant use their minds and get beyond the tattoos. this is real life. its not law and order. its a diverse disease because it affects black and white rich and poor alike. but when its happening every one looks low life. working class folks are noble people. interesting is a weak word. you can do better if you really study them and understand what they have caught…go deeper. its way beyond domestic violence.

  • doug menuez

    It proves again, as you did, with enough courage and persistence the unphotographable subjects can indeed be photographed and brought to the public. Unforgettable, deeply disturbing, and valuable work. Bravo.

  • Candice Roma

    There was someone else documenting this whole thing in the room–the little girl. I wonder how much this moment and memories of these images will affect her.

  • unionfan

    Put the phone down… pick up a chair and do something!!! Photojournalist instinct my arse. All that says about you is that you are too selfish to help someone out when they need it. I’d be watchful for the paparazzi slippery slope if I were you.

    PS – yes I’ve been involved in incidents where sooo many people wanted footage for Youtube rather than prevent a series of muggings which myself and a friend evnetually managed to do. Huge shame on them.

    • csandel

      Actually, taking pictures and calling the police provided more actual, material help than ‘picking up a chair’ would have. Attacking an attacker only snarls up the legal situation and makes it easier for him to slip away and continue to abuse.

      What this did was provide incontrovertible evidence, so that the law could do what the law is supposed to do. Wrestling-ring justice would only have perpetuated the cycle. Shame on you for shaming someone who made a difference.

      • donna_ferrato10013


        • mradclyffe


      • mradclyffe

        And have three victims instead of two? It’s so much easier for you to say what could have, should have happened, but you weren’t there. These pictures are far more powerful and can do so much more for the cause of DV than a single woman against a violent man could ever do. The law rarely does what it can, waiting until attacks have happened before stepping in, usually when it’s too late. The photographs provide irrefutable evidence that many victims do not have, shed light on a hidden situation that many still try to ignore, but you still pontificate and criticise. No, the shame is on you.

    • Donna Ferrato

      this is a statement by the national organization of forensic social work 1992. about my book, living with the enemy when it was first shown at the Burden Gallery (Aperture Foundation)

      Donna Ferrato’s Living with the Enemy, a shocking exposure and examination of the terrors and experiences of battered women, is one picture book that will not be found on coffee tables. it is simply hard hitting. Few people, like unionfan, will accept the intrusion of this disturbing reminder of “the dark side of family life.” Some will be unable to see the book through to the end and more will skip the sensitive text and gripping case histories that give meaning to the photographs.

      this book is in the tradition of documentary photography. It is a call to action. The documentary photographer assumes that a public made aware of the raw pain of a social problem or condition, through pictures, treatment or some other humane collective response. there is a problem then if ordinary people will not attentively study this volume. Unless other forces cause Living with the Enemy to be become required reading for policy makers and opinion leaders, Ferrato’s purpose will be undermined.

      unionfan: the purpose of these photographs is to wake you up. grow up. there are many people around you who can help you but no one can help you more than the person with a camera who is an idiot sauvant perhaps, but they can take a picture that will tell the story of what just happened in your life. and it will be considered the gospel truth.

    • JJ Johnson

      I have been a self defense instructor for over 26 years, starting in the military. At 6’3 and 265 pounds, I would not have physically intervened unless I felt that the offender was about to do irreparable harm or substantial bodily injury. Physical intervention could ONLY have exacerbated this situation. The cops were on the way, and they are trained and equipped to deal with domestic violence. DV is one of the most lethal situations for a cop to walk into. Why do you think a woman armed only with a camera should have intervened? Perhaps you can change my mind.

  • peterv

    for a child this is extreme and in the Netherlands this is regarded as child abuse

  • Margareta

    Thank you for your courage.

  • Tammy Boots

    Dear Sara, as someone who not only witnessed and endured my father abusing my mother and myself but also had one abusive boyfriend I finally had the courage to leave at 18, I thank you. These pictures hold a little tiny bit of the horrid tension that was present that night. When I saw those children I started to cry. That is the worst feeling in the world, I still get horribly sweaty, uncomfortable and anxious around violence. I can’t handle it. I am so truly grateful you are doing this work, please don’t stop. Namaste

  • Joey

    Perhaps the fact that he has “white” and “trash” tattooed down his sides was a bit of foreshadowing for this event