CNN Photos

An unflinching look at domestic abuse

Photographer Sara Lewkowicz didn't set out to expose the horrors of domestic violence.

She was working on a graduate school project about the challenges an ex-convict faced after being released from prison. Shane, 31, told her that he was a recovering addict who grew up in an abusive home. With an extensive criminal record, finding a steady job seemed nearly impossible.

But he said he was determined to turn his life around. He had recently started dating Maggie, a 19-year-old mother of two young children, and he was trying to step into the role of father figure.

Then one night everything changed.

An argument quickly escalated. Shane shoved Maggie before pinning her up against the kitchen counter and grabbing her by the throat. Her 2-year-old daughter woke up and ran into the room, crying and stomping her feet.

It all unfolded in front of Lewkowicz, who had been photographing the Ohio couple for more than two months at the time. They were used to her presence. But she kept a wide-angle lens on her camera and stayed close to make sure Shane knew she was watching.

“I think he thought he was restraining himself,” Lewkowicz said. “If he was willing to do that in front of me, I don’t know what he would have been willing to do if no one was there.”

The resulting photo essay won this year’s Luceo Student Project Award, announced Monday exclusively by CNN Photos in conjunction with the contest organizers.

The award will help support Lewkowicz as she continues documenting the lasting effects of abuse while Maggie tries to reconcile everything that happened.

“It's extremely rare to find such a powerful set of images with such unprecedented access on an important issue-based story,” said Richard Koci Hernandez, one of the judges and an assistant professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. “This set of images sheds a light on a very dark corner of human relationships.”

Photographs of the incident, which took place in November, were published on Time magazine’s LightBox blog in February. The story triggered a debate about photojournalism ethics and whether the photographer should have done more to intervene.

But Lewkowicz says she doesn’t have any regrets.

During the dispute, she reached into Shane’s pocket to retrieve her cell phone, which she says he had borrowed earlier in the night. She passed it to another adult who was present and told them to call the cops.

When Maggie’s daughter, Memphis, came into the kitchen, someone else was there to move the child to another room. Police arrived in minutes.

“What people don’t remember is you can sit and look at the picture for as long as you want,” Lewkowicz said. “In doing that, you kind of lose sight of the fact that the picture was made in a fraction of a second.”

She says it’s easy for some people to think that they would have handled the situation differently, that they would have been more of a hero.

But many others have been supportive, including Maggie, who hopes her story empowers other victims and opens people’s eyes to the reality of domestic violence.

“At the end of the day, if she wouldn’t have had me do anything differently, then I don’t see a sense in having doubts about it myself,” Lewkowicz said.

And, she says, the photographs ultimately helped put Shane back in prison.

Since then, Maggie has relocated her family from Ohio to Alaska to reunite with her estranged husband. So far he has embraced his responsibilities as a father, but Lewkowicz says there’s still tension over their separation and Maggie’s relationship with Shane.

“I think that she’s still coping with feelings of guilt and dealing with wishing that she had done things differently and wondering how she could let this happen,” she said.

“It’s important for her and for anybody who has experienced this kind of abuse to realize it’s not their fault. They didn’t do anything to deserve it.”

- Brett Roegiers, CNN

If you or someone you know may be in an abusive relationship, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Sara Lewkowicz portrait courtesy Melissa Golden.