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Category Archives: Personal

The Bystander Effect and Photojournalism

Trigger warning for violence on this post, including domestic violence.

Just before my nineteenth birthday, I got jumped by gang members.

This is simultaneously more and less thrilling than it sounds. I lived next door to a few of them; my only issue with them was the constant loud and late parties. But one Sunday afternoon they were itching for a fight, and I was the one with the shit luck of answering the door. I got dragged outside by my hair and as the kicking and punching sounded, my survival instincts kicked in, and I screamed my head off. I kept screaming as loudly and continuously as my lungs would let me; well aware that I was in a somewhat secluded courtyard and no one would be able to see me, but they might be able to hear me. My flatmates came to my rescue and got me back inside, although not before I’d lost most of my hair, and sustained two black eyes, a scratched cornea, a fractured cheekbone, and bruised ribs. I was lucky. It could have easily been so, so much worse.

The thing that still haunts me about the experience is not the beating itself. Those wounds heal, and the only real reminder I have of that now is the way I still tense up if someone touches my head. The thing I still think about is that there were two other flats on my property, with about fifteen residents between them. We were surrounded by houses. And not one person who didn’t live with me came over, or rang the police. If I’d been home alone, I could have been killed.

Just before Christmas my partner and I went outside around 11pm on a Saturday night for some fresh air, just because it was stifling hot in our apartment. We live in an apartment building in the middle of the Wellington CBD; what we gain in convenience, we lose in the noise of buses and drunk partygoers hollering outside our window in the wee small hours. Across the street, there were two men and a woman, and a lot of shouting. At first we thought it was probably just drunken loudness; it wasn’t until one of the guys began slamming the other into the window behind him that we realised it was nothing of the sort. I rang 111 while my partner grabbed a supermarket security guard, who went over to try and defuse the situation. Plenty of people walked past us both without even glancing over the road.

The Bystander Effect has been widely studied. In a nutshell, the more people who witness something, the less likely it is that any one of them will take action.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot today, because of a link that came up on my Facebook feed. There is a serious trigger warning for domestic violence on this, but if you have the spoons, this series, “Shane and Maggie”, is a series of images by photojournalist Sara Naomi Lewkowicz that depict an incident of domestic violence. In the photographer’s own words:

I had been photographing a couple, Shane and Maggie, since September. I had originally intended the story to center on their struggles trying to make ends meet, as Shane has a lengthy criminal record that has prevented him from obtaining steady employment. One night, Shane and Maggie got into a fight, and Shane began to physically abuse Maggie, slamming her up against walls and choking her in front of her two-year-old daughter, Memphis. He had taken our cellular phones, so I reached into his pocket and steal my phone back when he was distracted. I handed my phone to another adult who was in the house,and instructed them to call the police. I then continued to document the abuse. In that moment, my instincts as a photojournalist kicked in. I knew I had to stay with the story and document it in all of its ugly truth. I have continued to follow Maggie since the abuse, and am producing a multimedia piece as well as a still series.

There has long been discussion about photojournalists in war zones and areas of abject famine; photojournalists who have ended up taking their own lives, due in at least some part to the intense criticism levelled at them for taking images rather than helping. These criticisms are valid, but at the same time, I think I can understand why you would need to learn how to switch off your emotions somewhat if you were constantly faced with the worst of human suffering. I can empathise with that, even if I don’t agree with it.

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz is not in a war zone. She is not facing horrors most of us could hardly imagine and will never experience, day in and day out. She is a photographer who, when faced with a young woman being choked and beaten in front of her two-year-old daughter, did not freeze in fear. She had the presence of mind to steal back her cell phone—and then hand it to someone else to call the police so that she could continue to take photos of the event.

That is a conscious decision.

Can I say how I would have acted or reacted in the same situation? Probably not. Can I sympathise with a woman who is not prepared to throw herself into the middle of a violent situation? Fuck yes, I can. But the concept of someone standing there taking photos while a woman is choked and beaten, of letting a child stand there and watch this take place, makes me sick to my stomach.

If it was anyone but a photojournalist, there would be an uproar. If I witnessed an assault on the street and, instead of intervening or calling the police, whipped out my iPhone and got snap-happy, I would (rightly) be castigated for it. But because these pictures were taken by a photojournalist, instead, it is seen as perfectly acceptable to make a project out of it.

That shit just doesn’t fly with me, sorry.

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Posted by on January 12, 2013 in Domestic violence, Media, Personal

 

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Christchurch Earthquake: One Year On

Last night, I flew down from Wellington to Christchurch, driven by the need to be here today, where I was a year ago.

I sit in the house that sheltered me when I couldn’t face going back to an empty home. Soon I’ll join my colleagues from my old job, the people I was with that day, the ones who cried with me and beside me.

I find it just as hard to articulate how I feel on this day as I did, and still do, find it hard to explain what February 22, 2011, was like to those people who weren’t in Christchurch at the time. There are no words to describe how I felt, sitting on the grass outside my work, when I first heard the words, “There are people dead in the city.” There are no words for the level of terror when you begin to realise that not only are you unable to trust the ground beneath your feet, but that that same solid surface has killed people. Some aspects of that day I remember in vivid technicolor, while others I can barely seem to recall at all.

I remember breaking at least six different road rules (and technically stealing a car—I did have a key, but the owner was back inside the building helping out, and I didn’t entirely tell her what I was doing) to pick up my ex’s six-year-old brother from school, as his parents were out of the country. That drive took me along Barrington Street, and I remember the bile rising up in my throat as I saw (and felt) the damage to the roads. I remember thinking, if it’s this bad here… and being unable to complete the thought without being sick.

I remember swapping phones constantly with friends and colleagues on other networks, all of us trying to get through to others in Christchurch, and to anyone outside of the city to tell them we were okay and to pass the message on to the rest of the family. I remember trying to text a colleague at a meeting down in Ashburton, the message basically saying Don’t panic, but you probably felt that, and it’s bad up here. Ring your wife. I don’t know if that ever got through; I don’t think I ever asked.

I remember being utterly, unbelievably thankful that I’d enabled text alerts for Twitter. Those were, surprisingly, working, and that was how I got all my information in those first few hours. I will forever be thankful to the likes of Rhys Darby, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Telecom, Vodafone, and most of the major banks for their slew of information and updates when I had no other way of knowing what was going on around me.

I remember the attempted rescue mission to try and find my 86-year-old auntie, who lived in Hereford Street—a mission that got us trapped in a gridlock on the motorway for over two hours. That part’s blurry, but I know we couldn’t get in to see her, and I know I chain-smoked my way through most of that trip. I think a lot of non-smokers suddenly picked up a habit that day, to be honest.

I remember a friend tweeting to say she was stuck at Christchurch Airport, having been moving from Dunedin to Sydney that day. We went to get her, and the sheer volume of people just milling around was overwhelming.

I remember my dad’s ex-wife being the first person to get a phone call through to me, from Perth. That phone call, brief as it was, still sticks with me—the way it was being reported there, Christchurch was flattened and gone.

It wasn’t long after this that I finally managed to get a hold of my mother (who lives about half an hour south of Ashburton), having been trying every five minutes since the quake. More than three hours had probably passed by this point. She picked up the phone, heard my voice, and just burst into tears.

That was the first time I cried. It wasn’t the last.

By the time I got back to my place, our living room was packed to the brim. Our flatmates were students, and they’d brought anyone back to our house who couldn’t go back to their own place for whatever reason (whether transport or damage). So here we are, 30-odd people packed around a 14-inch television in varying degrees of shock, watching the footage, hearing the stories.

My heart broke for my city then, and it still aches today.

Mā te Atua koe e tiaki, Christchurch. Kia kaha.

Me te whakaaro nui atu,
Maria-Jane

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2012 in Personal

 

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Blog for Peace 2011: The Many Faces of Feminism

It seems to be a common misconception—especially amongst men, although definitely not limited to them—that feminism is a monolith. There is this common idea that one branch of feminism is all branches of feminism, and every self-identified feminist will agree with every opinion, publication or discussion that takes place under the branch of feminism. This is despite the fact that the first six words on the Wiki page for Feminism (I know, I know, but it’s the first place most people look) are, “Feminism is a collection of movements…”

In my experience—and I really want to stress that—this idea is usually perpetuated by those who are anti-feminism, or in some cases, men’s right’s activists. It’s easy to take the most extreme, the most controversial, the most opposing viewpoint to your own, and lump everyone into that category as a way of dismissing an entire group or movement. And let’s face it, it has to be a lot easier to dismiss feminism out of hand than to examine the many, many complexities and contradictions within the feminist movement.

Identifying as a feminist doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with everything in the movement—or even most of it. For some people, “feminist” means nothing more than “I think men and women should be equal”. It’s not a political statement, or even something they think about most days. For others, it is their livelihood, their careers and their politics. For most, it falls somewhere in between.

Very few people will deny that there are a metric ton of problems within the feminist movement, both past and present. Racism, classism, cissexism, reclamation, sex-negativity, parenting, the concept of “choice” and many others continue to be contentious issues amongst feminists—and that’s before we bring in postfeminism. Using these problems as an excuse to dismiss feminist issues, however, is to deny a myriad of very real failures in achieving equality. Because at the end of the day, disagreements on whether or not the world “slut” can be reclaimed doesn’t take away from the fact that one in four women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, or that less than 10% of reported rapes result in a conviction.

Feminism will never be a monolith—and nor should it be. Different groups—be that geographical groups, races, seuxalities, classes, whatever—will always have different goals and priorities. Yes, these goals will merge and diverge and various points, and this is a good thing. Of course we don’t all have the same goals. What the fight for equality means to me as a young, white, queer woman with terrible health is different to what it will mean to a Muslim woman in France today, which in its turn will be different to what it means to a poor Black woman in the United States, which will be different… you get the idea. None of these battles are any “more” or “less” feminist than any other, though they will be more or less relevant to the people involved. It’s important to remember the distinction, both from within the movement and outside of it.

This is my contribution to Save the Children’s Blog for Peace project. It was an odd tangent, I know, but this is where my brain went! Please follow the link for the full blogroll of participants 🙂

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2011 in Personal

 

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MJ’s SlutWalk Aotearoa Speech: Civic Square, Wellington, June 25th 2011

I should have published this ages ago—I didn’t, and I apologise. Behind the jump is my speech from SlutWalk Aotearoa… as close as I can remember it, as I did a bit of ad-libbing. If anyone took any audio/video recordings on the day, please flick them through to me! ♥

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Posted by on August 15, 2011 in Personal, Rape/Sexual Assault, SlutWalk

 

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Speech Writing

It has been a long, long time since I’ve written a speech. The last one I wrote was about 5 years ago, and it was my speech for Year 12 English (I got an Excellence and won the school speech competition, TYVM.)

I don’t think I’ve ever written a speech to be read in front of 1,000+ people, AND the media, AND (probably) YouTube. And it’s nervewracking. Not the speaking part, strangely. I have no problem getting up in front of a thousand people and speaking.

But what I actually say? That’s the nervewracking part.

There has been so much controversy over SlutWalk. There are going to be a lot of people watching us closely, waiting for us to fuck up. And that’s a scary thought. It’s a lot of pressure – say the right thing, don’t exclude, don’t speak for anyone, don’t fuck up.

And I’m saying a lot in my speech. Mostly, it’s around “Why SlutWalk?” – as an organiser, it’s my job to answer that one. There are so many differing opinions as to “Why SlutWalk”, and the only one I can offer is my own.

But as the speech stands now, I don’t talk about my own assaults. I’m not sure if I can do it. But I don’t know how seriously I’ll be taken as an organiser if I don’t.

I need to finish this damn speech already.

 
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Posted by on June 21, 2011 in Personal, SlutWalk

 

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