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'We need to be pushy': women's rights and photography

Guy Lane
·6-min read

Donna Ferrato, activist, photojournalist and campaigner for women’s rights, is unexpectedly – and only briefly – conciliatory. “The good thing with Trump was that everything was becoming more transparent – we were seeing how the world worked more clearly than under any other president we ever had.” The moment passes and she adds: “But it was also the reason why we had to fight much harder and change things and take back our rights.”

  • Infinito. Piano by Gabriele Ciampi; cello by Livia de Romanis. “I needed music for the photographs; since Nina Simone wasn’t around I got Gabriele Ciampi instead. His music is about understanding the heart of a woman, sorrow, pain and the liberating power of orgasms,” says Ferrato.

Ferrato is an internationally-known documentary photographer – most famous for her often shocking work focusing on domestic violence – who has participated in more than 500 exhibitions worldwide and won numerous awards – including the Robert F Kennedy Award for Humanistic Photography, the IWMF Courage in Journalism award, and the Missouri Honor Medal. She founded and ran the Domestic Abuse Awareness project for over a decade and in 2014 Ferrato launched I Am Unbeatable, a campaign to raise awareness, educate and prevent domestic violence against women and children.

  • Homeless shelter, Chicago, IL, 2006

Ferrato and I are talking by phone about a new experimental video collaboration with the Italian musician Gabriele Ciampi launched on the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in which his composition Infinito accompanies a sequence of some of her hardest-hitting images.

“Gabriele had this idea to work with female photographers and he really wanted to show challenging work. When he sent me some music I was really moved by Infinito, and I felt that was the piece that had the most emotional range to it. I recognised he really is a believer in the rights of women. This was quite an extraordinary experience, to work with a composer who was very sensitive and give him the toughest pictures that I have and see how he could make more points using my photographs with his score.”

  • Boyfriend, policeman, Karen and her daughter, Minneapolis, MN, 1987
    Karen’s boyfriend is taken away by police. Her daughter, who called the cops when she found her mother on the bathroom floor, looks on. Karen did not press charges, and he was released the next day.

Ferrato’s evident satisfaction with the film is offset by an increased concern about the increase in domestic violence during the pandemic. “In the States … the problem is that the shelters are unable to bring in as many families as they could before,” she says. “Right now they are having a hard time just keeping their doors open at the end of the Trump presidency because the funding from state to state has been very sketchy.”

  • Victoria Gill, NYC, 2017
    The only tattoo on Victoria’s body is the amniote vertebrae of a snake.

Moreover, if a woman or child is able to alert the authorities, further difficulties can ensue. “It’s very scary, when the police go in you never know how they are going to behave. Most women don’t want their husbands or their boyfriends to be killed; they just want them to stop hurting them. But the police go in and that’s when the real violence often happens. It’s really hard for people in this country to trust the police. Bad things happen. We need to be training the police, so they know how to get the men out of these situations.”

  • Sarah Augusta Jones with sons Jayden and Tyler and her parents Geoff and Susan, Nashville, TN, 2012. Sarah and her family at “Meet Us at the Bridge”, an annual event sponsored by the Nashville Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Raped and pregnant at 13, Sarah was coerced into living with her rapist. She finally escaped with her children. This image was included in “I Am Unbeatable: Celebrating and Documenting Stories of Empowerment,” Ferrato’s 2012 exhibition at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

I ask Ferrato about the worry and anger she mentions in her latest book, Holy, a retrospective of five decades’ work, an indictment of the violence that is meted out to women, and an affirmation of their strength, endurance and will. Her worry was focused, she says, on women’s right to choose.

“We’ve been under assault on abortion rights for 20 to 25 years, and I’d been fighting. Everybody seemed to think, especially in [the US], that we had nothing to worry about, that this was the law. But the Democrats and the liberals were not putting enough attention into it. What we saw over the last four years is that there are now at least eight states that have no more legal abortion.”

  • Shelter advocate with Pam, Boulder, CO, 1986
    Pam (right) arrived after her husband had slammed spiked shoes in her head, stabbed her in the hand and burned her arm with cigarettes in front of the children. Pam’s husband was released by a judge who was concerned the man might lose his job if he was held. Pam moved to another city via an underground shelter system.

And her anger is still keenly felt. “The Republican administration was attacking immigrants and women who were coming into this country trying to escape horrific violence. And suddenly it didn’t matter any more what was being done against women. It was all about these ridiculous laws that were accomplishing nothing, just hurting people. I was really furious at the numbers of children that were being taken away, put into cages and not given any support. There was no record being kept so that the powers-that-be would be able to reunite parents with their children. This was just inhuman.”

  • Fanny Ferrato, Cleveland, OH, 1986

“I don’t understand the hypocrisy of people in this country, not just white men, but white women too. I don’t understand the hypocrisy of it all. People who claim to really care about every life, the unborn life, and yet they will do nothing to help these children after they are born.”

The election result has been a relief. “It was so moving and so powerful to see the way the voice of the people was heard. And that is thanks to the women of colour, brown and black women. That’s not because of white women; I see half of the population of white women in America as the enemy of women everywhere because they are protecting the predators.

“Thanks to Biden and this extraordinary woman, Kamala Harris,” she adds, “things are going to change.”

  • Anna with mother Mary, St. Paul, MN, 1987

Her commitment and focus are undiminished: “I want to provide more than entertainment. As a photographer there are many great photojournalists out there and we have realised over this last decade that we need to put more into our pictures. We need to be more pushy, we need to be a lot more gritty, we need to provoke people more.

“That’s the power of photography: to provoke people and show what’s going on.”