An Interview with Famed Photojournalist Donna Ferrato

 Kosovar journalist Fatlind Duraku interviewed the famed photojournalist Donna Ferrato who made her name with her work on domestic violence. Her photographs appeared globally and are now displayed at the International Center for Photography in New York and in galleries across the world.

Donna Ferrato on Domestic Violence

©Donna Ferrato

Throughout my childhood I have been exposed to domestic violence. As a little child it was very hard to cope with the terrible feeling of seeing my mother being an obedient wife just for the sake of her children. I had no strength to do something that could wipe away her tears and stop the hand of my father from beating us. I was always looking for a way to speak it out, to tell people how harmful domestic violence is and make them understand. I have been following Donna Ferrato’s work for a year now, and every time I scroll through  her photographs I relate to them. She is a photographer from New York who documents domestic violence in families and shows us the sad reality in photographs. I found her work very profound and a very good way to bring awareness to the people.

Duraku: You have worked for famous magazines like Time Magazine, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, LIFE, Stern Magazine. What is the life of a photojournalist like especially in a big country like America?

Ferrato: Magazines are in trouble. There isn’t money to support long term photographic projects. Unless you work for National Geographic it’s hard to get assignments to do stories you care about and still make a living. We look like pigeons pecking in the street for bread crumbs.

Duraku: What kind of attributes should one have to become a photojournalist and document such things as you have?

Ferrato: Work hard. Keep it real. Honesty is everything. Don’t believe the hype. To be a good photojournalist, you must write. So listening to the things people say between the lines is important. Always go deeper. I see the best photographers walking like birds in the sky with their heads high: seekers of the truth.

©Donna Ferrato

Duraku: I’d like to focus now on your work on domestic violence. How did you come up with the idea to shoot that subject, and how hard was it?

Ferrato: It happened and I was there. I did not set out to photograph domestic violence. I was looking for couples who loved each other. I was curious to learn things about marriage, how it could work. The couple in my book were “swingers.” It was 1981. They had an open marriage and they seemed to have achieved the American dream. They were open and modern. I admired their style. They accepted me and before long I was inside, photographing them at home, during the orgies and hanging out with the children too. The longer I stuck around the more confusing it was. To see the things as they happened day by day. It was insane, much like how I imagine the Trump White House. The husband controlled everything and everyone was walking on egg shells. They were afraid. I didn’t know how to name it. I didn’t think it was right to give advice or interfere. Domestic violence was something that happened when nobody was watching. But when it did — everybody looked the other way. I started shooting this project before society was really thinking about domestic violence as an issue. When I saw him hit his wife, and I reacted on pure instinct. Then I remembered my place as a woman and stopped him from hitting her again. When I went home the next day I was literally in denial that it had happened and put the roll of film into a drawer where the film sat undeveloped for months! Normally I couldn’t wait to process film. From there everything went down hill. It was confusing. First I thought he loved her. Then I saw he wanted her to be his slave. She was doing her best to save their marriage, to stop him from using cocaine. He continued to beat her when I was not around.

Ferrato 2.jpg

Duraku: In your book“Living with the Enemy” Aperture, 1991, did the subjects approve of you taking photographs like that? How did they react?

Ferrato : I work closely with people. They know I’m there. And why. I want to see things get better. Perhaps people feel like they want to show me the truth because it may be a relief to be real with a stranger who doesn’t judge you from the past. Maybe they felt safe with me. I read books about women and the men who beat them. I met writers and activists doing groundbreaking work, worked with legal experts who were writing legislation to protect women while pushing for punishment for abusers. I rode with the cops for months — night and day. I lived and photographed in battered women’s shelters, in hospital emergency rooms. I camped out in maximum security prisons with female inmates who killed their abusers in self defense. I attended programs for men court-ordered into rehabilitation programs. I looked for men who knew it was wrong to beat women. My approach is to dig in and search for solutions. It was real clear to me that society was the problem because the courts made it easy for men to get away with everything. So did religion. The point of my work as a photographer was to find ways to use the photographs as instruments of change. To show how society had to wake up and face human injustice. It was time to support the victims of abuse, mostly women and children. We are living in fascinating times. Around the world women are demonstrating against male oppression. With daring cellphone videos, Saudi women are challenging male control. They are questioning why mothers and wives are in a “perpetual state of being a minor.” Women in India’s Bihar state are sick and tired of men’s cruelty. They created and are enforcing an alcohol ban as they warn men, “Behave or we’ll get tough.” If women behaved like men who won’t grow up the world would end.

Duraku: You were the organizer of the fundraising action for the Quanada Shelter for Battered Women and children in Quincy, Indiana. What happened?

Ferrato: We raised nearly $20,000. Not as much as I hoped for. But it did force attention to the reality that the state was no longer applying necessary funds for social services, schools, health centers and battered women’s shelters. The shelter administrators and employees kept working for little or no pay because they knew the alternative would be that battered women were either going to have to kill somebody or else they were going to die. Too often domestic violence escalates to a point where death is the only way out.

Duraku: Have you ever thought to expand your experience outside of America and document injustices in other parts of the world? Kosovo for example.

Ferrato: Yes. In 2014 I was invited to present my work in Pristina for a UN conference. The President of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga, was in the audience. Afterwards President Jahjaga kindly asked if I would return to document the stories of war time survivors — mostly women but also some men who had experienced extreme sexual violence during the 1998–1999 war. I wish I could. However, it would be better for some one else to do this because its important to speak the same language as the women, to live in the same culture. I think a great photographer like Anahit Hayrapetyan, author of Princess to Slave, (published by FotoEvidence in 2015) about violence against women in Armenia, would be the best for that work.

Duraku: By your Facebook posts one can see that you are not a fan of the Trump government. If yes, could we have some specific reasons?

Ferrato: We’ve been hijacked. Nothing is real in this feminist dystopian nightmare. Trump grabbed more than our pussies. He holds the reigns to our destiny whether we like it or not. This freak who represents disorder like the world has never seen has the mental capacity of a seven year old. He enjoys the companionship of wife beaters and rapists. He tweets his approval of public figures who are proven rapists. He belittles handicapped people. What I can’t figure out is why women like him. That’s what gets in the way. Women are largely responsible for this mess. His wives, his daughters, the 53% of white women who voted for him. They’ve let him get away with sexual abuse and murder.

Duraku: As long as Donald Trump is in charge, do you think that the domestic violence in the US will increase?

Ferrato: Unfortunately, no doubt about it. In Trump’s budget plan, he proposes to cut funding for Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) grants. These grants support shelters, hotlines, programs for children who witness violence, family court programs and police training, among other things. The funding already is insufficient; in 2015 there were 12,000 inquiries for domestic violence services that could not be fulfilled due to lack of resources. If these proposed cuts are passed, domestic violence will severely increase and many women will be left without any options — either they’ll have to stay or they’ll have to kill their abuser. That’s what happens when there aren’t shelters or other resources, and women get so beaten down and desperate they’ll do anything to survive.

Duraku: We know you as a strong feminist, but give us a clue. How do you define feminism?

Ferrato: It’s the most gorgeous flower I’ve ever seen. It never dies no matter how much you mistreat it. It’s beauty grows from inside and pushes the energy of creativity out. You can’t buy it. You can’t sell it. It’s something you can have even if you aren’t born with it. You just have to trust women who don’t play favorites with men. Gloria Steinem said a feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality of full humanity of women and men. Smart women know in their heart of hearts they are equals, but there are outrageous discrepancies which women have to constantly struggle with. Without feminism life is unfriendly. Once you see feminism in action, you will never forget it. Until every woman is free and owns her own body and mind, feminism is a tantalizing dream. I believe the future is still female.





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