Photo by Elyse Blennerhassett
Interview with Donna Ferrato
by Michelle Bogre
Donna Ferrato, an internationally acclaimed and award-winning photojournalist, is known for her groundbreaking documentation of the hidden world of domestic violence, an issue she spent years photographing. These images were published in her seminal book Living With the Enemy (Aperture, 1991) which, alongside worldwide exhibitions and lectures, sparked an international discussion on sexual violence and women’s rights. A longtime activist, 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. In her new award-winning book, Holy, published in 2020 by powerHouse Books, Ferrato repurposes her images, that combined with handwritten text, proclaim the sacredness of women’s rights and their power to be masters of their own destiny. For more information, see www.donnaferrato.com
Michelle Bogre interviewed Donna Ferrato at her Tribeca loft on July 29, 2022.
Michelle Bogre: When did you realize you were an activist photographer, not just a photojournalist?
Donna Ferrato: In 1993. I was in Bruce, Mississippi covering the funeral of seven children who were burned alive in a house fire because there were bars on the windows that locked from outside the house. The family—children and grandmother— were trapped inside, as if in a prison. No magazines were interested so I went on my own. As soon as I arrived, I saw people gathered around someone who had collapsed. Women in white dresses surrounded her. I figured it was the mother who was incarcerated but received a day pass to attend the funerals of her mother and her seven children. I got down on my knees and crawled between women’s legs to get the picture of a mother with a broken heart. Nobody tried to stop me. Sometimes I feel invisible. Perhaps people didn’t stop me because they could see at that moment I was upset, having trouble focusing through my tears. People saw I was not dispassionate.
My activism evolved trying to make sense of that story. I saw what I had to do—investigate as well as photograph and find ways to publish stories about the crimes against women, domestic violence, and criminalized survivors of domestic violence.
MB: Crawling between someone’s legs to get a picture seems a bit aggressive.
DF: I don’t think people realize how invasive I am. To get a photograph, I will go to hell and back. It was hard to get access to battered women’s shelters when they were completely off-limits to the press. I had to get inside to convince the shelter directors, the residents, the police, the prison superintendents, hospital administrators, even the violent abusers being arrested. I lived it with people, whatever they were going through, even in prison or in their homes.
The eight-year-old boy called 9-1-1 to report his father. When the police arrived to arrest his father, Diamond said, “I hate you for hitting my mother. Don’t come back to this house.” This photograph was awarded one of the most influential 50 photographs. © 1987 Donna Ferrato/ Life Magazine
MB: Was the story published?
DF: Yes. I took a set of photographs to People magazine. The editors were interested and sent me back with a great writer, Bill Shaw. We met with the landlord, Mr. Chandler. While Bill was interviewing him, I had a chance to get the proof that Chandler was responsible for their deaths. He could have saved the family because he had the keys to the bars on the window. I saw the photo: he was lying on a couch under a window where the ring full of keys was hanging. Click. One Sunday at church, I spoke to the congregation. I told them I didn’t believe that God called the children to Heaven; it was human negligence. I suggested they form a committee, attend monthly town meetings, and see what the fire codes were. I wanted them to understand that they had rights and the more they knew, the better chance they had to change the law—maybe outlaw those dangerous metal bars that killed people. The committee was led by one armed woman, Minnie, the deceased children’s aunt. They eventually changed the law in Jackson, Mississippi and when I saw how successful they were, I decided I would never be a quiet photographer. From that point, I’ve always spoken my truth to the people I photographed.
MB: How can you be so invasive, to use your word, and still get intimate photographs?
DF: People may see some madness in how I do what I do so they don’t stop me. I don’t care how strange I look. I’ll crawl on my belly. It’s about being there. My size works in my favor. I am small, agile, and fast. Most of the time, I prefer being lower than the people I’m photographing. I don’t ever want people to feel like I am towering over them.
MB: That’s visible in your pictures. You bring the viewer into what feels like an intimate moment.
DF: When I teach, I try to help photographers see that they don’t have to stand in a corner to be unobtrusive. Often the view is right in front of our eyes. Wherever the photographer stands it’s important to be in the moment, to absorb everything, sorrow, pain, anger, love. Let emotion enter the images through us.
MB: You use a 35 mm or wider lens? Leica rangefinder?
DF: I use a Leica M10. Leica has been my weapon of choice since 1976 when I had a Leica M4. Most often I work with a 35 mm lens. It’s one camera, one lens, one woman. I am never without my camera.
DF: Why in the world would I go anywhere without my beloved camera? The camera is me. Photography is a calling. Often, we have no choice. As a young woman, I realized that I had an instinct to frame and extract what matters from that moment, the good, the bad, the ugly. I would lose my mind if I couldn’t photograph.
Mississippi Fire, 1993. Ether Ree Hall Gaston, mother of six of the dead children, collapses in the gymnasium where the funeral is being held. Doing time for drug trafficking, she was let out of prison for the day. ©1993 Donna Ferrato
MB: You do have an extraordinary instinct for the perfect moment. One of the images in your book, Holy, titled Diamond, Minneapolis, is almost perfect. You captured the moment when the boy is shaking his finger at his father, and there are three cops, and the battered women’s face is framed in a “V” between two of the cops, the television is on, but the perfection is the White cop’s hand in the Black man’s pocket.
DF: White and Black…mmm, yes, well, when I entered the house tagging behind the cops that morning, it was early, and the curtains were drawn. Everything happened fast, hard core drama. I had a flash, and was fumbling trying to get it on the camera, to bounce it off the ceiling. As the cops brought the father into the living room, I was ready but every time the flash popped I couldn’t see what was happening. I heard what the boy was saying because I was next to him. The police were going through the father’s pockets, to make sure there were no weapons. The boy was angry with his dad, he was angry with everyone. Later, when the film was developed I saw it was the picture as I imagined it would be. But honestly, it’s all instinct. It’s Jedi Warrior photography. But I didn’t have a signed release. I went back a month later to meet the parents and they signed a release, which was necessary to be published in LIFE Magazine.
MB: In the profession we talk about secondary trauma. You’ve seen a conflict, violence and injustice. How do you absorb the violence or does the camera provide detachment?
DF: There is no detachment. Injustice is always gut-wrenching. A photographer sees right through everything. We have to get the best photograph whatever happens, but it’s complicated. I can’t say that I don’t absorb their feelings, but clearly, I don’t suffer the consequences like the people in the photographs. Some of the people were thankful that I was there. Not everybody. Many people would like to forget these things happened. Photographs make it hard to forget. I too become trapped in the frame of that moment. We all suffer from collective trauma. Every time I relive these incidents, I relive them and become anxious, depressed, especially now as things are worse than ever. Domestic violence is more difficult to predict, to contain, to prevent. My purpose now as a human being is to keep these photographs in the forefront of human consciousness, as an activist and a witness
MB: What is your new project, Wall of Silence?
DF: The Wall of Silence was my response to an open call from the NYC Mayor’s Office to end gender-based violence, a chance to create art that would inspire activism about the criminalization of survivors of gender-based violence. My idea was to build a prison wall with a stainless steel mirror, to create a portal by which people would see themselves and hopefully relate to the horror of being unjustly incarcerated. I chose the Collect Pond Park in lower Manhattan as the location because of its proximity to the criminal and family courthouses, where too often survivors —especially Black,Brown, and LGBTQIA+ people—lose their rights because they defended themselves and their children. On the day we unveiled it in the park, a survivor, Tracy McCarter, currently facing incarceration, appeared almost as if she was transported through the Wall of Silence. The project brought Tracy into my life and now I am working on telling her story as it unfolds in one of the courthouses facing the sculpture. Through this project, I hope to not only educate society, but to be a witness and put pressure on the court system to feel compassion for survivors of gender-based violence. I am using the installation to disrupt the silence by engaging the public and the media to support Tracy’s case. Her story is another example of how society and the courts are stripping women of their rights: their reproductive rights, their rights to bodily autonomy, to the basic human right of self-defense, and their right to the pursuit of happiness to live as free and equal human beings.