In 2013, Sara Naomi Lewkowicz was awarded the Alexia Foundation First Place Student Winner Grant, for her project, “Shane and Maggie, An Intimate Look at Domestic Violence,” which showed a domestic assault in brutal detail. The work has been featured by Time Magazine, and Spiegel, among many others. In this interview, we speak with Sara about the impact this story has had and what her plans for the future are.
Alexia Foundation: It has been more than a year since you photographed the brutal domestic abuse of Maggie at the hands of her boyfriend Shane. Have your feelings on the situation and your response to it changed at all? Has distance given you any kind of wisdom in regard to the situation?
Sara Lewkowicz: I think I’ve stopped feeling a need to defend myself or my actions. I’m at peace with the knowledge that I balanced my responsibility to call authorities and my responsibility to create a record of the kind of brutality that millions of people experience every day at the hands of a loved one. I was pretty clear fairly quickly on how I felt about my own actions, it was my desire to make other people understand the situation that ate at me; the feeling that I owed everyone something, an explanation, whatever you would like to call it.
Maggie said something that put my mind at ease, once. She said to me, “I don’t have any problems with how you handled it, and I’m the only one whose opinion about that situation really matters, in the long run. So what do you care if someone who wasn’t even there is mad about it?”
Alexia Foundation: How is Maggie? Where is she and how is she coping?
Sara Lewkowicz: Maggie and her husband, Zane, decided that their marriage wasn’t working, despite their attempts to give it another shot, and decided to separate. She’s back in Ohio, and has just enrolled in nursing school after passing her GED with flying colors. She is determined to map out a career for herself that can support her and her two children.
She told me she’s identified her desire to heal and *fix* people as the source of her tendency to date men who are emotionally damaged, and told me that she realized that nursing is a career that can allow her to indulge her caregiver instinct, without having to bring that it home with her, so-to-speak. The amount of growing she’s done in the last year is remarkable.
Alexia Foundation: Are you still following Maggie’s struggle? How long will you work on her story?
Sara Lewkowicz: Maggie and I talk every few days, and I’m planning a trip out to Ohio in the next month or two to visit her. I’m not really sure how long I’ll work on her story…I may always be working on it, even if it’s just for myself. I’m currently exploring other options for publication so that those who are interested can follow her journey.
Alexia Foundation: You’ve had a pretty amazing year. You’ve won numerous awards and exhibited in Perpignan. What have you learned?
Sara Lewkowicz: I’ve learned that it’s possible to do a significant body of work without you yourself being significant as an individual photographer, and the importance of knowing the difference. The awards and grants are wonderful and validating, don’t get me wrong, especially as a newcomer. But I’ve learned that as great as all this stuff is, it’s really not what drives me to do this work. But I still have a lot to prove.
I keep getting asked “what’s next,” as though someone is waiting to see if I’ll be a one-hit wonder or whatever. And if the measure of success is whether I ever do something that is as massive in response as this, then sure, that’s a totally unattainable goal, and by that standard, I might “fail.” But if the measure of success is going to be having shot lots of stories…big stories, little stories, heavy stories, light-hearted stories…and having grown and improved as a shooter over the years, and being allowed into people’s lives, then I know I’ll be successful.
Honestly, as great as this year was, if I never have another year like this again (and it’s likely I won’t!), I’m totally ok with that. I just want to keep working. And someday, I want to look back on my life and be proud of myself. But it’s not going to be awards that will do that. It’s going to be the actual body of work I’ve created.
Alexia Foundation: What did winning the Alexia Grant mean to you?
Sara Lewkowicz: You know, I met Aphrodite at the Alexia Exhibit at CPW 25 this summer. She embraced me warmly, and told me after a few minutes of conversation that I reminded her of her daughter. She said I had the same small stature, the same dark hair and the same expansive gesticulation when I talked. And she told me, “You have to go out and do this now. You have to have a career, because my daughter can’t.” I still get a lump in my throat thinking about it.
I went to Lockerbie, Scotland while I was studying in London. I went for two trips, and spent a total of around two weeks there. I shot my own personal project about Lockerbie, it ended up being kind of a fine art thing. While I’m not sure it’s the most successful thing I’ve ever shot, I feel as though it was a really important exercise for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was that it gave me a deeper understanding of the Lockerbie bombing and how it affected those who survived it.
I visited the field where they found Alexia, and shot some portraits of current Lockerbie Academy students there, and I was embraced by the people in Lockerbie in such a warm and genuine way. The trip was easily the most meaningful part of my stay in London, and I now feel forever connected to that place and that event.
Alexia Foundation: What have you done with your Alexia Grant?
Sara Lewkowicz: With the Alexia Grant, I was able to visit Maggie when she relocated to Alaska and to continue to tell her story. Grants like this are invaluable for student and professional photographers to do this kind of long-term storytelling in this economic climate.
Alexia Foundation: What are you working on now?
Sara Lewkowicz: I have a few things I’m researching, including the story I will be shooting for my internship with National Geographic Magazine this summer. I am also planning my masters project for when I return to OU in the fall, formulating a project to apply for a Fulbright Grant, and still following Maggie’s story and another story I’ve been working on for four years in Maryland.
I’m also working on getting back to a regular yoga practice again; I just seem to handle life better when I’m regularly in down dog, and this year the balance shifted all the way to once side. I didn’t take much time for myself. I’m trying to restore a little of that balance, because I’m just a more efficient, happy human being when I’ve got a balance in my life. Also, I’m working on finishing Season 2 of The Wire, because I’m super late in watching it in the first place and everyone has been yelling at me for years that I need to.
Alexia Foundation: What are your plans for the future? What are your goals? Where do you see yourself working?
Sara Lewkowicz: I’m kind of taking things a year at a time, at this point. I never figured this time last year that I’d be in the position I’m in now, so I’m just trying to carve out manageable chunks of time to plan for. I have this year basically mapped out…a few months in NYC, then interning at NatGeo, then finishing my master’s in the fall at OU. Everything else depends on what comes in the next twelve months.
Ideally, I’d love to continue working for the amazing publications I’ve worked with so far (especially Time Magazine, who have been good to me every step of the way, and Stern, who have been amazing as well). I’d love to have a chance to shoot for National Geographic someday (as a professional rather than as an intern), and I’d love to start working more on developing my skills in other areas of photography (both because diversifying is a necessity, and because different stories are best told in different ways.) One of my goals is to do at least one or two serious portrait projects in the next few years. But yeah, right now I’m trying to just focus on the next twelve months.
Alexia Foundation: What is your advice to young photographers?
Sara Lewkowicz: STOP comparing yourself to everyone else. Just don’t do it. It’s counterproductive, and does nothing but wreck your self-esteem. I didn’t grow for SO long because I just compared myself to everyone else, and it prevented me from really trying. I defeated myself before I even began most of the time, and I lost time because I did that. Instead of comparing yourself to your classmates or your peers, compare yourself to yourself. Look at your work from one year to the next, see how you’ve developed, how you’ve improved, where you still need work. This is the way to get better, not looking over your shoulder.
Also, never ever give your work away for free. Don’t do that, and if you’re doing it, stop. If someone wants your work, it’s good enough for them to pay for it, whether you’re a student or not. You hurt yourself and you hurt everyone else in the industry when you do that.
Alexia Foundation: What do you want people to know about you?
Sara Lewkowicz: I want people to know that I haven’t finished the Wire yet, so if you all could refrain from letting any spoilers slip around me, that would be most appreciated.