Interview: Donna Ferrato on 50 years of photographing women
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Interview: Donna Ferrato on 50 years of photographing women

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Donna Ferrato has spent her career documenting women and sees it as her duty to ‘cut out the noise and listen’. She’s photographed everyone from survivors of domestic abuse to swingers – and throughout the course of her career she’s learned that all women are part of what she describes as a holy trinity: the mother, the daughter and the other.

The individual pictures in her new book, Holy can often be difficult to look at, but they are crucial. When viewed as a whole they capture all the rage and joy and complex truth of what it means to be a woman. Ferrato is angry, but she also knows that women are extraordinary. Holy is a testament to that.

We spoke with Ferrato about how the COVID-19 lockdown shaped the final edit of the book, why it was important to handle all aspects of the design herself and what she’s learned about women after 50 years of photographing them.

Note: Images featured in this interview are pages from ‘Holy”.

The work in Holy spans your entire career – what was the editing process like?

The editing was the most important part of making this book. In the beginning I thought this was going to be a general book about my career, a retrospective. I had a very generic title like American Woman, and it was organized chronologically: it was more about my trajectory. Then I realized that wasn’t conveying the point of why I am a photographer. It’s not about who I’ve been working for or the stories that I’ve done. The idea behind all of these stories and the reason that I take pictures, whether it’s my family, friends or on assignment, it’s always with the single inspiration to understand who women really are and what they really want.

I’m really trying to understand how to make life better for women, and that’s really what I’ve been doing for most of my life. How do we make it better? How do we have better laws? How do we learn to speak with each other better? How do we learn to talk to the police better? I realized at one point, this book couldn’t be about a photographer’s journey. That’s when I started calling it Holy.

At what point in the editing process did you realize that you needed to change the structure of the book?

I worked on it for about four years, but it was only in the beginning of the pandemic, when I was all alone in the house and I had about four months to finish this book, that I realized it needed to change. [I realized] that the book was about the mother, the daughter and the other. It was coming from a really primal place inside of me. Nobody was coming over. I was all alone. My daughter and my grandson were living in Ohio. No one was coming by to visit me and suddenly I could really hear the voices in my head much more clearly. Then I started taking different pictures from the archive. It was all starting to coalesce in a more exciting way. I started listening more to my heart during the pandemic and that freed up the edit. That’s when it really all fell into place.

It took me so long to put it together, I’d missed three deadlines. The publisher, Daniel Power, told me that he’d never been through something this insane. The other photographers are working with designers or editors, but I was the editor and the designer. I think early on Daniel saw that he couldn’t control me, and he was going to go crazy if he tried to impose any deadlines or structure on me. Even though this was the first book that I ever did with him, he just trusted me and let me go.

Why was it important for you to handle all aspects of the design, the edit and even hand write the captions that appear in Holy?

I wanted it to be a handmade story, not just made, but also maid. I realized that I had to do everything because that’s what women do. We do everything and we can do everything. The power is in our hands. The handwritten captions, well, I grew up with a father who was a surgeon and an incredible photographer. I grew up watching him write captions on his slides of Kodachrome and writing behind every picture. That was really precious to see him doing that work and to have all of those pictures now with his handwriting on them. I’ve written on my pictures most of my life – part of it goes way back to Duane Michals too, he was a big influence when I set off to wander the world with a camera and a bag over my shoulder. I admired his technique of writing on his pictures, but I wanted to tell real stories, so I was always telling real people’s stories on the photographs, not made up stories.

It was difficult handwriting all those captions in Holy, I had to write those so many times. I’d be writing all night long, I was really angry at all the things that were happening at the time too – to women, to our abortion rights, to children being taken away from the mother’s at the border and being put into cages. I was emotionally distraught, and I’d be writing every night and scratching through things and cutting into pictures.

That anger you talk about having during the past four years is definitely palpable in the captions. How are you feeling about the state of things these days?

I’m feeling like the bird that has been let out of the cage now. I’m feeling like it’s time to get out there, kicking our heels up, being joyful, defiant and taking our rightful place at the table. I feel like we are at that kind of an incredible crossroads right now. We have a chance. We’ve got to get to work, we’ve got to to start organizing and making sure that things really do change. We can’t just talk about it anymore and then get high.

One of my favorite things about Holy is how your ‘sexual liberation’ photos and your ‘domestic violence’ photos coexist. For a long time it seems these two bodies of work were kept separate, at what point did you realize they made sense together?

I actually wasn’t the first person to see how they had to be integrated, it was my step daughter, Katherine Holden. In the last five or six years she’d say ‘Donna why do you separate it? Why do you let the magazines separate your work? You need to rethink this because it is all about the life of women. That’s what you’ve been doing better than anyone I know,’ that’s what she told me. I had started thinking about this, but I knew it was going to get me into a lot of trouble.

When Love and Lust came out I became a pariah in the photography community. If a man did those pictures, that would be fine, but when a woman, who has also been representing battered women is saying that sex is great, swinging is great, S&M and all of that – it was like ‘no, we can’t let you get away with that, Ferrato.’ A lot of these editors and photo directors started to stay away from me, they weren’t giving me assignments anymore. It was a big change after Love and Lust came out. They didn’t really know how to show the work or talk about it.

All of the work that you’ve done throughout your career is deeply intimate, and that’s very obvious in Holy. How do you go about getting access and gaining the trust of your subjects?

First you’ve got to get permission, then you’ve got to get access. The access has to be to take pictures. You don’t get access to just go in there and look at people. You get access to be there with your camera. That’s the first step of trust. Then when you’re with people you talk to each other. I’m a talker, as you can see. I don’t really keep secrets. I don’t see my life as being that different from any one else’s. I’m pretty generous with the stories that I give people and with my time. My time becomes theirs.

When you are around people for a long period of time and always taking pictures, they just kind of forget about it. When I’m with people and I’ve got a camera and things are happening, I just start taking pictures, whether or not it’s something that is relevant to the reason why I’m there. It doesn’t matter. When I see something that is beautiful, or surprises me, or I see people are joyful, I’m always excited to take those pictures. When I go into people’s lives or even when I’m with my family, they realize that I’m excited when I take pictures.

I’m a voyeur, I’m not going to say I’m not a voyeur. I like to look and I like to be with people. When people are being kind to each other and having fun together – that’s when I get excited. They are moving and I want to move with them. Then they see that I get excited and then they realize – ah! There is something that happens between me and them and it becomes more of a communal thing. It’s almost like having a meal together. They don’t know what I’m seeing, they don’t know what kind of pictures I’m taking, or where the frame is cutting off, but maybe they get curious because I’m super curious.

Whether I have a camera in my hand or not, I’m incredibly curious and I don’t want to miss anything. I want to see it all. I’ll go anywhere just to be able to be in someone’s life. If they’re having a hard time, they are crying, they’re scared, of course I want to see that too. I want to be close to them. I want to be there for them.

The camera is a crazy instrument. For many photographers a camera is the way that we feed ourselves. It’s the way that we breathe. It’s a very alive thing. When I’m with my camera out there in people’s lives, it’s almost like the camera and me are one. That’s what it’s like. And that’s the reason I use a small camera. I don’t go out with a lot of different bodies, I don’t take a lot of lenses, usually it’s the same lens, a 35mm, once in a while I have a 50mm, but mostly I just work with that 35mm.

When you are dedicated to a 35mm camera with a 35mm lens, you’ve got to move around a lot. You have to get down, get dirt all over your butt, be there in the traffic. You’ve got to let the dogs come up and sniff you and growl at you – and you just keep taking those pictures. A camera just puts you in a whole other atmosphere. None of us photographers are like flies on the wall. We’re not. It’s really obvious when a camera is in the room.

What is your preferred gear to shoot with and why?

It’s really been Leica all the way, from the mid-70s. I had a Leica M3, then I had an M4 for a long time, then an M6, and now I have an M10. I don’t shoot much film anymore, the M10 is digital, the quality is just as good as the film. The only difference is I don’t get as many mistakes shooting digitally – double exposures or strange things with lighting, and I do miss that. I miss the unexpected things that happen when you are shooting film.

I would say I like that they are small. That’s the best thing about them. And they’re heavy. I like a heavy camera. I like weight. They are also kind of narrow. It fits nicely under my arm, or if I wear it around my neck then it is usually short enough that the body is against my breast and I can hold the body up with my hand and it’s ready to go up to my eye in a nanosecond. It’s fast and dependable and the quality of the lenses is unbeatable. You can’t do any better.

The way that Holy is organized seems to reference your early experiences with the Catholic Church. How do you think your childhood in the Church shaped the way in which you view women and their place in the world?

My mom did her best to bring me up like that and indoctrinate me, but I really never understood where a woman was supposed to belong in the Catholic Church. The trinity bothered me as a young girl. I see there is the father and the son and the ghost – but what about the women? What about the mother of God? Where are any of these people going to come from if they aren’t coming from the mother, and how come we can’t talk about the mother? The nuns and the priests told me I was too hung up on gender – God is everything, God is male and female, and that should be enough for you. I guess for a lot of people it is. They can accept it. But I couldn’t accept it.

What do you hope is the biggest takeaway from Holy?

The book of Holy didn’t just come out of thin air. Every woman in this book was chosen to be in it because they know that they are holy. All of these women have been through a lot of violence, a lot of abuse and a lot of sexual assault. They really didn’t have that much help on the outside. The courts weren’t helpful, the police weren’t helpful. The way that they were able to get out of their violent situations is by realizing that if they stayed any longer they were going to die. They had no choice. At the same time, every woman does have a choice.

I admire these women so much. They showed the most courage. Getting out and taking their kids with them and rebuilding their lives completely on their own. These women are the real heroes. I wanted this book to show what women can do. What they are capable of. That women can leave. Women do leave. So many women leave every day. That’s really the meaning of Holy. A woman knowing her value, knowing her worth and being able to say I’m not going to take abuse any longer. I’m going to get away.

The majority of my life has been devoted to understanding the women who had a lot of domestic violence, a lot of sexual assault and they go beyond it. They get out of it. That’s when it gets exciting, because that’s when they become the most extraordinary woman. That’s when they become the butterflies – after they’ve gotten out of the cave that they were in with someone who had to control them, powerless and unable to believe in themselves. When they get out of that they start to feel so good, and that’s what Holy is about.

Have high standards for yourself. Don’t let anyone try to control you. Really spend time with people and try to get to know them before you give your heart away so easily. It’s hard to know what people are about and if you are with the wrong person they can kind of destroy you. And then you don’t know how to get out of it because you’ve already invested your heart. I think that’s what this pandemic is teaching a lot of women too. Don’t rush into things so quickly when it comes to love, give it more time. Know yourself better. Learn how to take care of yourself better on every level.

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