Violence and abuse, sexual freedom and the search for an answer to the question “who is a woman really?” – Donna Ferrato combines all these themes in her works, which will definitely go down in the history of modern photography. We have translated for you an interview that was published on the resource dpreview.com straight to the International Women’s Day.
Donna Ferrato has devoted her entire career to documentary photography of women: she considers it her duty to “remove the noise and listen.” She filmed everyone from victims of domestic violence to swingers. In the course of her work, she discovered that all women are part of what she called the holy trinity: mother, daughter, and the other.
The individual photographs in her new book, Holy, are hard to look at, but they are all critical. If you look at them as a whole, they reflect all the rage, joy and complex truth about what it means to be a woman. Ferrato is enraged, but she also knows how extraordinary women are. Holy is her covenant dedicated to this.
We spoke with Ferrato about how the COVID-19 lockdown affected the final edition of the book, why it was important to do all aspects of design on her own, and what she learned about women by photographing them for 50 years.
The work at Holy spans your entire career — how was the editing process in general?
— Editing was the most important part of creating this book. At the beginning, I thought it would be just a book about my career, a retrospective. I had a very general title, something like The American Woman, and the book was organized chronologically: it was more about my journey. Then I realized that this doesn’t explain why I became a photographer. It’s not about who I worked for or the stories I shot. The idea behind all these stories, and the reason I photograph (and my family and friends and work) is always about trying to understand who women are and what they really want.
I’m trying to figure out how to make women’s lives better, and that’s actually what I’ve been doing for most of my life. How can we make life better? How can we make laws better? How can we learn to communicate better with each other? How to learn to talk better with the police? At some point, I realized that this book could not be about the path of a photographer. That’s when I started calling her Holy.
At what point in the editing process of the book did you realize that you needed to change the structure?
— I have been working on it for almost four years, but only at the beginning of the pandemic, when I was left completely alone in my house and I had only four months to finish it, I realized that I needed to change everything. I realized that this is a book about a mother, daughter and another. It came from some primal place within me. At this time, I was completely alone. My daughter and my grandson were in Ohio. No one came to visit me and suddenly I could hear the voices in my head much more clearly. Then I started sorting through different pictures from the archive. Everything began to connect in a more exciting way. I started to listen to my heart more during the pandemic, and this has “freed up” the editing process. That’s when everything really fell into place.
It took so long that I missed three deadlines. The publisher, Daniel Power, told me that he had never gone through something so crazy. Other photographers work with designers or editors, but I was both an editor and a designer. I think even earlier Daniel realized that he could not control me, and he would simply go crazy if he tried to impose any deadlines or work structure on me. Even though it was the first book I ever did with him, he just believed me and let me go.
Why was it important for you to independently work out all aspects of the design, edit and even make signatures by hand?
- I wanted everything to be done by hand (in the original, a play on the words “made” — to do, “maid” — a servant). I realized that I have to do everything myself, because that’s what women do. We do everything and we can do everything. The power is in our hands. As for handwritten signatures, I grew up with a father who was a surgeon and an incredible photographer. I grew up watching him sign his Kodachrome slides and every photo. It was really nice to watch him do this job and now I have all these photos with his handwriting. I’ve been signing photographs for most of my life — part of it goes back to Dwayne Michaels, he was a big influence when I set out to roam the world with a camera and a shoulder bag. I admired his technique of writing in pictures, but I wanted to tell real stories. Therefore, I always told the real stories of the people in these photographs, not fictional ones.
It was difficult to do all those signatures by hand in Holy, having to do them so many times. I wrote all night long, I was very angry at everything that was happening at that time — with women, with our abortion rights, with the fact that children were taken from their mothers at the border and put in cages …
This anger that has been with you for the last four years is definitely palpable in the signatures. How do you feel about that state now?
Now I feel like a bird that has been released from its cage. I feel like it’s time to get out of this, jump up, be joyful, brash and take your rightful place at the table. I feel like we’re at some incredible crossroads right now. We have a chance. We need to get to work, we need to start organizing and making sure things really change. We can no longer be content with just talking.
One of my favorite things about Holy is how your “sexual liberation” photography coexists with your “domestic violence” work. For a long time it seemed that these two themes exist separately. When did you realize they were working together?
“Actually, I wasn’t the first to see that they needed to be integrated, it was my stepdaughter Katherine Holden. For the last five or six years, she kept saying, “Donna, why are you separating them? Why do you let magazines share your work? You need to rethink this because it’s all about women’s lives. That’s what you do better than anyone I know.” I started thinking about it, but I knew it would get me in a lot of trouble.
When Love and Lust came out, I became an outcast in the photography community. If a man took these pictures, everything would be fine, but when a woman, who also represents women who have been abused, does it, she says that sex is great, swing is great, sadomasochism and all that stuff … it was all like “No, Ferrato, you won’t get away with it.” Many of the editors and photo directors began to stay away from me, no longer gave me assignments. After the release of Love and Lust, there were big changes. They didn’t really know how to show this work or talk about it.
All of these works that you have created throughout your career are very personal and this is especially evident in Holy. How do you go about gaining access and earning the trust of your models?
- First you need to get permission, and then access. Access for photography. You don’t have access to just come and look at people. You get access to being there with your camera. This is the first step. Then when you are with people, you talk to each other. As you can see, I love to talk. I don’t keep secrets, I don’t consider my life to be special. I love telling stories and giving people my time. My time becomes their time.
When you are around people for a long time and constantly take pictures, they seem to forget about it. I just start taking pictures, no matter how relevant these shots are to my task. When I see something beautiful, something that surprises me, or I see that people are happy, I always take these pictures with enthusiasm. When I enter people’s lives, or even when I’m with my family, they understand that I really enjoy when I photograph.
I’m a voyeur, I won’t deny it. I love watching and I love being with people. When people show kindness to each other and have fun together, I rejoice. They move and I want to move with them. Then they see that I am happy, and they understand — that’s it! Something happens between me and them, and it becomes a kind of collective affair. It’s like having a meal together. They don’t know what I see, they don’t know what kind of photos I take, how I crop the pictures, but perhaps they become interested, precisely because all this is very interesting to me.
Whether I have a camera in my hand or not, I’m incredibly curious and I don’t want to miss anything. I’ll go anywhere just to be in someone’s life. If it’s hard for them, they cry, they’re afraid, of course, I want to see that too. I want to be with them and for them.
The camera is a crazy tool. For many photographers, the camera is a way to feed themselves. It’s how we breathe. A very lively thing. When I am present with a camera in people’s lives, we become almost one with it. That’s why I use a small camera. I don’t go shooting with different bodies, I don’t take a lot of lenses, usually it’s the same lens — 35mm, sometimes I take 50mm, but almost always I work with 35mm.
When you’re committed to a 35mm camera with a 35mm lens, you need to keep moving. You’ll have to sit down, get your ass dirty, you’ll have to run. You let the dogs come and sniff and growl at you and you just keep filming. The camera puts you in a completely different atmosphere. None of us photographers are like flies sitting on the wall that no one notices. It is always obvious when there is a photographer with a camera in the room.
What is your favorite shooting equipment and why?
— It has always been Leica, since the mid-70s. I had a Leica M3, then an M4 for a long time, then an M6, and now I have an M10. Now I don’t often shoot on film, the M10 is a digital camera, the quality is as good as on film. The only difference is, I don’t make as many mistakes when shooting digital — double exposures and strange things with light, and I miss it. I miss the unexpected things that happen when you shoot on film.
I would say that I like their compactness. It’s the best thing about them. And they are heavy, I love heavy cameras. They are also quite narrow. They fit well under my arm, or if I’m wearing a camera around my neck, the strap is usually short enough that the camera is against my chest and I can hold it with my hand to lift it up to my eye in a nanosecond. They are fast and reliable, and the quality of the lenses is second to none. You can’t do better.
The way Holy is set up seems to hark back to your early experience with the Catholic Church. How do you think your childhood in the church influenced the way you view women and their place in the world?
- My mother tried her best to bring me up and instill the appropriate principles, but in fact I never understood what place was reserved for a woman in the Catholic Church. The concept of the Trinity bothered me when I was young. I see that there is a Father, Son and Holy Spirit — but what about women? What about the Virgin? Where will these people come from, if not from the mother, and why can’t we talk about her? The nuns and priests have told me that I am too fixated on gender and God is everything, God is male and female and that should be enough. I think for many it is. They can accept it. But I couldn’t.
What, in your opinion, is the main conclusion of Holy?
“The Book of Holy didn’t come out of thin air. Every woman was chosen for this book because she knew that she (the woman) was sacred. All these women went through a lot of violence and abuse. They didn’t get enough outside help. The courts did not help, the police did not help. The way they were able to get out of the situation of violence was the realization that if they stayed in it longer, they would die. They didn’t have a choice. At the same time, every woman has a choice.
I admire these women. They showed real courage. They were able to get out, take their children with them and completely rebuild their lives on their own. These women are real heroes. I wanted this book to show what women can do. That women can handle and leave. And they leave. They leave every day. And this is the real meaning of Holy. A woman who recognizes her worth and can say she won’t take abuse anymore.
I have dedicated most of my life to understanding women who have experienced a lot of domestic violence, a lot of sexual abuse, and were able to come out of it. That’s when it gets interesting, because that’s when they become extraordinary women. Then they become butterflies — after they came out of captivity, where they were with someone who had to control them, they were powerless and unable to believe in themselves. When they get out of it, they feel so good — that’s what Holy is all about.
Set yourself high standards. Don’t let anyone try to control you. Spend time with people and try to get to know them better before you give your heart away. It is difficult to understand what a person is, and if you meet the wrong one, he can destroy you. And it will not be clear to you how to get out of such relationships, because you have already put your heart into them. I think this is what the pandemic is teaching a lot of women. When it comes to love, take your time, give it more time. Get to know yourself better. Learn how to take better care of yourself at all levels.