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.

Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: Don­na Fer­ra­to. Source: dpreview.com

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.

Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: Don­na Fer­ra­to. Source: dpreview.com

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 …

Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: Don­na Fer­ra­to. Source: dpreview.com

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.

Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: Don­na Fer­ra­to. Source: dpreview.com

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.

Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: Don­na Fer­ra­to. Source: dpreview.com

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.

Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: Don­na Fer­ra­to. Source: dpreview.com

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.

Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: Don­na Fer­ra­to. Source: dpreview.com