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Nigella Lawson pictures: We must not look away from domestic violence, but we can do more than just gawp

The photographs of Nigella Lawson in the Sunday People are undoubtedly shocking - but do they really "raise awareness", or is the victim, already, being neglected and ignored?

Nigella Lawson.
It's not wrong to report domestic violence, but did anyone attempt to stop it? Photograph: Getty Images.

It’s the domestic part that gives domestic violence its particular horror: private brutality concealed within the public bonds of affection, intimate terror exposed in visible wounds and court reporting. It’s often hard to see from the outside, and hard to speak of from the inside. All of us, after all, are entitled to our private selves as well as our public version. How much harder to give yourself up when the self you reveal is the victim of another’s violence – and you are liable to be punished for the revelation.

One of the triumphs of feminism has been to break that tyranny of privacy. We no longer accept that violence within a relationship is protected by a sacred bond between abuser and abused. It’s a recent change, though: the Court of Appeal only established the right of a woman not to be raped by her husband in 1991. And so perhaps I should welcome anything that breaches the stigma around domestic violence – including the pictures in today’s Sunday People that appear to show Charles Saatchi attacking his wife Nigella Lawson in public.

I don’t, though. The reporting makes me very unhappy. That’s not to say I consider The People wrong to report this at all: there’s a case for public interest here that goes beyond a prurient anticipation of what the public will be interested in (and Saatchi and Lawson are certainly interesting people), and into the perhaps more laudable realm of “raising awareness”. Domestic violence should not be protected by taboos, and maybe suppressing these images would have meant concealing a crime.

But it’s the nature of these images that disturbs me, both how they were obtained and how they were released. The pictures appear to be paparazzi shots – and there’s no controversy there given that they capture adults in a public place, and that they appear to show an act to which no expectation of privacy can apply. But there is no sign in the attached copy that the photographer made any effort to ensure Lawson’s safety before clicking the trigger. 

In fact, none of the onlookers quoted by the paper (who, we are inevitably told, found the incident “shocking”) mentions calling the police. They seem to have simply … looked. This is not OK. I’m not suggesting that anyone there should have directly intervened, but in that situation it’s not good enough to observe alone: you should be there as a human being first and a camera second, and as a human being your first responsibility is to check that help has been called, and call it yourself if necessary.

Your second responsibility as a human being comes after you’ve got the pictures and when you’re thinking about publishing: this time, it’s to make sure that the victim is happy for you to tell her story. Lawson hasn’t given a statement on the incident so we can only assume that she hasn’t been party to the reporting. And perhaps if she’d been asked, she would have refused and the story would have been lost.

But how much richer, more truthful and more humane reporting can be when a journalist exercises a little responsibility for their subject. In 2012, photographer Sara Naomi Lewkowicz accidentally found herself covering a case of domestic violence. She had thought her story was about a released prisoner adjusting to his freedom; but when Shane, her subject, attacked his girlfriend Maggie, that changed. 

Lewkowicz’s first thought was for Maggie: “After I confirmed one of the housemates had called the police, I then continued to document the abuse,” she writes. And since the incident, she’s continued to work with Maggie in chronicling the aftermath of the abuse: “Maggie asked me to move forward with this project and to tell her story, because she feels the photographs might be able to help someone else.” 

In her photographs of Maggie, Lewkowicz catches the subtle patterns of abuse: the isolation, the explosions, the apologies that win the abuser one more chance, and the hope of survival and escape too as Lewkowicz follows Maggie into her future. By contrast, in the People’s front page, we simply have a woman who looks frightened and humiliated, being further humiliated again by the crass tabloidese that surrounds her. “Boiling point”? “Bust up”? “More shocking pictures”? This is not the language of compassion and care. 

We must not look away from domestic violence, but when we look, let us see a whole person, not just the instant of victimhood presented on the front page of a newspaper. And then, when we see the whole person, we must feel the urge to do more than just look: we must offer kindness and dignity too, instead of gawping.