Donna Ferrato © C. Dingley
Donna Ferrato (b.1949, USA) is an internationally acclaimed photojournalist known for her groundbreaking documentation of the hidden world of domestic violence. Her seminal book Living With the Enemy (Aperture, 1991) went into four printings and, alongside exhibitions and lectures across the globe, sparked a national discussion on sexual violence and women’s rights. In 2014, Ferrato launched the I Am Unbeatable campaign to expose, document, and prevent domestic violence against women and children through real stories of real people.
Ferrato has contributed to almost every major news publication in the country, and her photographs have appeared in nearly five hundred solo exhibitions in museums and galleries worldwide. She has been a member of the Executive Board of Directors for the W. Eugene Smith Fund and was president and founder of the non-profit Domestic Abuse Awareness Project (501-c3). She has been a recipient of the W. Eugene Smith Grant, the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Outstanding Coverage of the Plight of the Disadvantaged, the IWMF Courage in Journalism Award, the Missouri Medal of Honor for Distinguished Service in Journalism, Artist of the Year at the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Look3 Insightful Artist of the Year. In 2008, the City of New York proclaimed October 30 “Donna Ferrato Appreciation Day,” and in 2009, she was honored by the judges of the New York State Supreme Court for her work advancing gender equality.
Her new book, Holy, published in 2020 by powerHouse Books, is a call to action. It proclaims the sacredness of women’s rights and their power to be masters of their own destiny.
The Passion of Donna Ferrato by Claudia Glenn Dowling
HOLY? The dominatrix and the swinger, the woman with a bloodied face—holy? Yes, says MaDonna. They are women, and, contrary to what the priests told her, women are sacred. Away with the pallid wine and wafer! This transgressive photographer wants real flesh and real blood. Her sacrament, her true communion, is to witness and click that shutter. To tell the truth about women’s lives.
For the last half century, Donna Ferrato has been photographing her story and the story of American women’s rise to power. Donna, after all, means woman in Italian, and ferro is iron. Woman of Iron. Her father was Italian, her mother, Irish, so fight is in her blood. The nuns at St. Joseph’s couldn’t take it, and finally expelled her in eighth grade for shredding her uniform into a kind of hula skirt. Luckily, she got into an all-girls school, a template for her life’s mission: Women rule.
Stop. It is all about sex. Married females—those who had sex and children—were, in common law, essentially property. Women got the vote in the U.S. only a hundred years ago. When Donna graduated from her Ohio high school (Laurel School for Girls) in 1968 (on her birthday and the day of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination), women could be denied credit because of their sex. They could be fired for getting pregnant. They had no legal recourse for sexual harassment at work. Their husbands could beat them. They could rape them, too. “Domestic violence,” now called “intimate partner violence,” did not become a federal crime until, thanks partly to Donna’s photographs and ferocious advocacy, the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. Sex. The women’s movement has always been about sex, about women reclaiming their orgasms, abortions, births—agency over their own lives and wombs—from men who try to control them.
Look. Back in the day, when we started out on our life stories, I typed on carbon sets on a manual typewriter, and Donna shot and developed rolls of film in a darkroom. There were no digital cameras, laptops or mobile phones—and not that many female photographers. No #MeToo movement, for sure. “How old were you when you lost your virginity?” That was the first thing Donna ever said to me. I had seen her charging about the corridors at Life magazine for years, all bedhead and Leica and outrage, pressuring editors to let her tell the stories she knew were important, stories about sex and love and violence —and battered women, where all three are twisted together. “I used my voice to normalize sex and do stories most photographers wouldn’t touch,“ she says. Donna is the provocateur, the wild card, the raging one. She has been been married and divorced. She has been a primary breadwinner. She has been raped, had an abortion, given birth to a daughter. Today she’s a grandmother. And she has been chronicling history from a female point of view for almost 50 years.
Click. VERMONT. The headlights come through the window of the trailer, where a woman cowers with her children. Her husband has just been released from prison, where he was doing time for almost killing her. Is it him? He has guns. Donna, sleeping on the sofa bed, secretes the family in a motel. Journalists aren’t supposed to intervene, but she can’t just stand by. In the beginning, like the Evil Eve, Donna tempts her subjects, seduces them. But once she becomes part of their lives, they become part of hers. Decades later, she is still in touch with the family. The terrified children now have children of their own. Says Donna, “We don’t love ’em and leave ’em.”
Click. LOS ANGELES. Donna watches in dismay as actors in a porn shoot have sex on her bed in midafternoon. She has been living in a sex club for middle-aged swingers, shooting an Oxygen TV doc. When (fake) climax has been reached and the film crew has departed, Donna strips the bed and purifies everything in hot water with soap and bleach. As the daughter of a doctor and a nurse, Donna has fear of germs. Yes, she can clean. She is also a world class cook. She considers “woman’s work” sanctified.
Click. MISSOURI. Hunting down white supremacists. SEATTLE. Prying into the sex lives of seniors. PALM SPRINGS, CA. Shooting naked at a nudist colony. NEW YORK CITY. Parading topless down Fifth Avenue for Gay Pride. WASHINGTON DC. Protesting on the steps of the Supreme Court for availability of abortions.
Listen. That protest was recent. She’s been at it for a long time. And she’s not done. After making amazing gains, women’s power is being undermined. Cutting-edge thinkers may be embracing a nonbinary gender system, but the U.S. is increasingly polarized. Religion influences government policy, eroding personal decisions about health care and enacting laws in which women are, once again, chattel. What’s at stake is a woman’s right to be in charge of her own destiny. She’s getting crucified. Who’s on the side of the angels here? It’s not Donna’s photographs that are twisted.
Donna is, again, a rebel with cause. “I want women to stand up for their rights and not be submissive to the patriarchy, the man, the priest, the president,” she says. “The father and the son and the—holy shit!—we can’t even be in the trinity! Where’s the mother? Women are holy. We have the power to create life.” And so she has birthed her own version of the trinity: the Mother, the Daughter and the Other, which represents the Holy Spirit of hope, hidden in Pandora’s box beneath all the evils of the world. That bright spirit of curiosity and erotic transgression will, Donna prays, lead another revolution into a future beyond the binary, one of intersectional wholeness. She doesn’t yet know what shape it will take, but she can see the shimmering of its wings.
Donna Ferrato set out to make the profane—the archetypal female who proffered the forbidden fruit—sacred. To disobey, to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, is not, in Donna’s Eden, the Original Sin. The real sin is obedience, to not seek knowledge. Woman of Iron Donna Ferrato has won just about every accolade in documentary photography. In the process, she may have broken several of the ten commandments, but never this one: Thou shalt not bear false witness. No fake news. This is Donna’s covenant: To witness and to tell the truth. Wholly.