Terror in Public and in Private

Yesterday the World Press Photo Awards were announced. As usual, a certain amount of controversy always surrounds the top selection — whether people are enthusiastic, outraged, or underwhelmed by the image. This year American photojournalist John Stanmeyer won for “Signal,” his photograph of “African migrants on the shore of Djibouti city at night, raising their phones in an attempt to capture an inexpensive signal from neighboring Somalia.” While Stanmeyer’s photograph is picturesque, I wasn’t particularly moved by the image. But I’ll leave the commentary on “Signal” to Michael Shaw over at Bag News Notes, who does a stellar job analyzing the prize-winning image. What piqued my interest in this year’s World Press Photo Award selections was the contrast between the work of two specific photographers: Tyler Hicks and Sara Lewkowics.

Hicks, a staff photographer for The New York Times, won second prize in the Spot News Stories category for his coverage of the Westgate Mall shootings in Nairobi this past September. One of his key photographs, included below, depicts a mother and her two children seeking cover from gunfire in the mall’s food court. What the image shows us is a mother’s best attempt to protect herself and her children from an immediate and deadly external threat (i.e., the multiple gunmen roaming the mall). There is also a terrible sense of vulnerability in this image since the young family is only protected from potential harm by a low-slung restaurant counter. Though the photograph captures a moment that is international in scope, the reality is instantly recognizable from an American perspective, where mass shootings have become so common.


A woman and children hiding in the Westgate mall. They escaped unharmed after gunmen had opened fire at the upscale Nairobi mall on September 21, 2013. At least 39 people were killed in one of the worst terrorist attacks in Kenya’s history. Photograph by Tyler Hicks, USA, The New York Times (click to enlarge).

In Lewkowics’ photographs, however, a selection of images from a series for Time titled “Shane and Maggie,” we see a mother in a similarly dangerous but altogether different scenario. Maggie, mother to Memphis, 2, and Kayden, 4, is involved in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend Shane. To further complicate the situation, Shane is not the father of Maggie’s two children, but insisted early on in their relationship that the kids address him as “Daddy.” Shane’s tendency to be possessive and controlling to those around him, however, is most disturbingly evidenced in the tattoo across the front of his neck (i.e., Maggie’s name), inscribed in his flesh one month into their relationship. The following caption from one of Lewkovics’ images reveals the unstable foundation of Shane and Maggie’s relationship:

The stress of Shane’s unemployment and raising two young children on very little money often took its toll on the relationship. As the newness of their relationship wore off, they began to argue more frequently, usually about money or how Maggie focused most of her energy on the children rather than her relationship. Lancaster, Ohio, US.

Lewkowics’ photographs are jarring and frightening, not only because of the immediate danger that Shane poses to Maggie, but the danger he poses to her children as well. Lewkowics’ access to the couple’s private life also made me question the role of a photojournalist in this particular scenario. As the photos progress and as Shane becomes visibly violent toward Maggie, I wondered if it was Lewkowics who called the police officers that we see in the final frames.

The contrast between the photographs from Hicks and Lewkovics struck me when I first saw them late last night. At first, of course, I wasn’t certain as to why. Obviously, the World Press Photo Awards have no interest in comparing and contrasting the work of its finalists. But as an onlooker the realities of these two mothers — each living a world apart from one another — left me deeply unsettled. Danger is danger, whether brought on by an external force or perpetrated from within by someone that you love. And to attempt to make sense of such violence never gets any easier.


As the fight continued to rage, Shane told Maggie that she could choose between getting beaten in the kitchen, or going with him to the basement so they could talk privately. Lancaster, US. Sara Naomi Lewkowicz, USA, for Time (click to enlarge).

(Photograph, top: Sara Lewkowics. Caption: One month into their relationship, Shane had Maggie’s name tattooed on his neck in large black letters. Millersport, Ohio, US.)