“Holy” is the adjective Donna Ferrato uses to describe women. “Men get all the credit all the time. They get the support. They get the praise. They get the devotion. Hanukkah, Christmas, whatever. It’s all about God, never about the Mother of God. I’m sick of it,” she says. For fifty years, the American photographer has been documenting women. Including herself: pregnant, mother, and then grandmother. Women who surrender to pleasure, in clubs or in private. Battered women and women who manage to get out. More recently, she also photographed her own mother during the last years of her life. All these women are in the book released by powerHouse.
“They are in this book because they are in my life.” Donna Ferrato is an emotional force, fiercely free and independent, dedicated body-and-soul to the women’s cause, who uses photography as an advocacy tool — which doesn’t make her a feminist in the traditional sense of the word. She is open about sexuality and in 2004, under the title Love & Lust, published a series of images that are more about passion than eroticism. When she captures scenes of orgy, she does it without false modesty or voyeurism; rather, she celebrates free, consenting relationships; and it is this very notion that is at the heart of her fight against domestic violence.
She has, however, been often spurned by newspapers. No one was interested in women’s sexuality. “Hetero women are about the most unpopular subject. They don’t want to see people having great sex. They can look at any picture of a woman being hit, but they can’t look at a picture of a woman in the middle of an orgy being worshipped and adored.” She shows scenes of violence with the same impossible intimacy, sometimes getting so close to her subject that she dissects the fear and rage in their naked crudeness. But her closeness is sometimes so confusing that one publisher, whom she sent the photograph of a woman being slapped, canceled the order and never contacted her again.
In this photograph, Donna Ferrato is an arm’s length away from the assailant: we see her reflection in the mirror which breaks down the scene into multiple angles. And if this image has been retained, it is not only because of this incredible proximity, but also because the photographer’s approach is based on the mirror effect, on the positive reflection of themselves Ferrato inspires to the victims as well as to the audience. “We have gone through so much together and I see them end up in a very positive way. And that’s what I want. I want all of us to appreciate and help each other. That’s really why I’m a photographer.”
“Philip [photographer Philip Jones Griffiths, Donna’s longtime partner] has always said ‘you’re different from every photographer I’ve ever known because you really, really care about people.” And like Philip’s, Donna’s photographs have made a difference. “I used my voice to normalize sex and do stories most photographers wouldn’t touch,” she is quoted saying in the introduction by photographer Claudia Glenn Dowling. Together, Donna and Claudia saved a woman from the murderous fury of her husband, lived in a swingers’ club while shooting a documentary, participated topless in a Gay Pride Parade, pried into the sex lives of seniors and hunted down white supremacists, Glenn Dowling recounts. In a conversation she had with the Ku Klux Klan while covering them for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Donna also shocked them by quoting John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s song, “Woman Is the Nigger of the World”. One can imagine their surprise.
The present book brings another surprise to those who doubt the power of women. “I embedded messages in the book to turn their hearts around. This is my insurance against the patriarchy.” It’s a raw and poetic way to pay tribute to the women she has defended all her life.
Laurence Cornet is the Paris-based editorial director of the organization Dysturb, a journalist specializing in photography, and an independent art curator.
Donna Ferrato, Holy
Published by powerHouse Books
The book is available here.