I tasted Donna Ferrato’s blood. Pretty damned salty, just like Donna of course. Donna had just cut herself opening a bottle of Chardonnay during the upcoming interview. Her wrist and thumb now covered in blood. “David, dammit, taste MY blood” was the missive, the command, the attack, the sweetness. So, I did. I mean, we share the same birthday, so it seemed like the thing to do. Gemini all the way. That pretty much sums up all that I know about Donna. A woman on her own terms all the time, a champion of women’s rights and all human rights, the biggest man eater in the biz who has always been the hottest girl in the room. She won’t mind right now that i used the word “girl”. For she is not a man hater. Quite the contrary.
Yet forget her espíritu de la alma… Donna makes images. Powerful ones. Pictures that mean something, were made FOR something. Donna bites, fights, and claws at society with her work. She wants stuff to change. Mostly she wants men to stop beating their wives and girlfriends. She demands we all be aware. “Living With The Enemy” will tear at your heart. Yet she will totally switch gears (or not) to take us into her “other Donna” and take us into the dark sensuous drama of Love & Lust. For sure Donna lives inside, way inside, her work.
I met Donna years ago on a beach. Along with Philip Jones-Griffiths, Sebastao Salgado, Alex Webb, Susan Meiselas and a host of other “100 Best Photographers”, sent to Australia’s Bondi Beach to begin shooting “A Day in the Life of Australia”. History. We knew it at the time. The beginning of surely one of my “families”.
David Alan Harvey: We’ve come to hear an original Donna Ferrato story.
Donna Ferrato: You want a story never told before?
Candy Pilar Godoy: A Donna Ferrato exclusive.
DF: Well, here goes. Ages ago when Rick Smolan was creating his dream team for Day in the Life book series, he wanted the best photographers in the world. He promised they would have fun, shoot however they liked, all expenses paid, free apple computers, cameras, film and cash. I was nothing more than a spit in the bucket so being invited on the team was a lucky break.
DAH: Get famous overnight. It was like the Brat Pack in Hollywood. Everybody got “famous” ha ha.
DF: Yeah? Weren’t they famous already? I wasn’t with an agency nor did I work for National Geographic. For me it was a chance to watch the big guys work. When I say big guys I mean women too, like Susan Meiselas, Jodi Cobb, Penny Tweedy, Mary Ellen Mark.
DAH: Mary Ellen wasn’t there.
DF: She probably said no. Soon after the first book was a wrap my daughter Fanny was born. From that point she went where I went. The next project was “Day in the Life of Canada”. Time Magazine’s golden boy, PF Bentley taking the group portrait up on a ladder, working with a large format camera, megaphone in hand, telling everyone where to stand. Bentley stutters. I wondered what kind of photographer gets so famous with a bad speech impediment. My curiosity was piqued.
CPG: Uh oh.
DF: So later on, at the bar among the flank of photographers I saw PF Bentley and asked him. “Don’t people get exasperated when you take so long to explain stuff?” He stared hard in my eyes and said, “Yeah.”
“Well, isn’t there a way to cure it?” He says, “Right after an orgasm, I don’t sttttutter for hours.”
CPG:…and you have to see if this is true?
CPG: What a smart guy!
DF: I took him up to my room. He wasn’t lying. For the rest of the night he spoke the Kings Speech.
CPG: (laughter) That’s an incredible story. Classic Donna Ferrato, almost too good to be true. Your personality, your hold no bar sense of being, how do you work that into taking pictures?
DF: First of all, I really want to be there in people’s lives and so because of that I’m good at convincing people, explaining my case fast, why I want to be there, etc. I’m not just there to take the pictures and run away. I want to understand what’s going on and most of the time people have to give me permission. I’m 100% invested.
CPG: Do you ever shoot digital?
DF: Sure. I’m using the SONY NEX-7 now. It’s nice but not as fast as a LEICA. The best is film. The proof is in the negatives.
DAH: You still have the same green and red tape on your camera as you did 30 years ago?! ..When I saw her, the main thing I remembered about her other than that she was really cute was her M4.
DF: Leica. M6. In the late seventies, I was getting to know Paris, didn’t know anyone, slept in the parks at night to save money. Custom camouflaged it so nobody would know it was a Leica.
CPG: What made you start taking pictures?
DF: A burning desire to tell stories and have as many adventures as possible. First my girlfriend and I hitched across the plains. I wanted to see things, we had dreams of opening a shoe salon in Key West.
I wasn’t thinking about professional photography. My dad was the most committed person I’d ever seen when it came to getting a picture of ordinary people in every day life. That didn’t mean he made any money at it.
Later when I met my main squeeze, Philip Jones Griffiths, and we made Fanny and then her half sister Katherine came along 9 months behind her, we began shooting each other, Dad, Philip and the girls, and our friends. It was like being on a never ending “Day in the Life” book project.
CPG: Something great about you Donna is that you’re a beacon for women’s rights, yet you’re not a man hater. You love everyone, don’t you?
DF: Is this a trick question? Sure I like men as long they aren’t abusing or holding women down.
CPG: Hearing you both (DAH + DF) tell stories about the past and relive moments is priceless, yet I really get a sense that photojournalism has changed a lot over the years. I think a lot of young people feel that way.
DF: It has. It used to be that media companies made good photographers better by investing in us and encouraging us to follow our nose. The world revolved around photographers and vice versa. Photographers worked like dogs to earn their day rate. Today photographers are completely taken advantage of as if there is honor in working for free. Once photography was a religion. Today it’s business. I try to understand where photographers think they’re going when they take an assignment for a fraction of the conventional day rate. That’s not the way. Photographers must respect themselves and stick together.
CPG: When did it change? When did you see that flip happen?
DF: After 2001 the fad was war and war was the most fashionable thing for a photographer to do after 9/11. I think documentary photography lost its moral compass because it became too obsessed with war and the war on Iraq was built on lies.
CPG: It’s changed so much and now there are new generations coming in, trying to find their place within the medium. What advice do you have for young emerging photographers today?
DF: Find a way to make money. Be smart. If you want to be a photographer, get ready to live on the edge. There are plenty of good photographers concerned with feeding their families and paying the bills. But if you want to break new ground, come up with your own ideas and forget about stablility. Don’t let anyone control your mind.
CPG: Can I ask you about your latest project? Tell us about “I Am Unbeatable.”
DF: Unbeatable is… happening. I didn’t understand it when I started putting it together five years ago. I wasn’t sure how I could make a convincing collection of images that relayed the importance of women leaving abusers sooner rather than later. 30 years ago militant defenders of women’s rights established a comprehensive network of battered women shelters. The grass roots movement did an incredible job of pushing the real question to the forefront – why do men beat women?
The hope was to stop blaming the victim. But I say it’s not good enough anymore. Everyone has to hold violent men accountable, including the women who live with them in state of love or fear or mostly likely both.
CPG: How did it come about?
DF: Last winter the NY Times Lens Blog published images from “Living with the Enemy” and an interview by Jim Estrin. After that an LA woman looked me up to talk about her mom. Her mom sounded like my dream come true, the original “I Am Unbeatable” woman.
Last spring I flew to SF and stayed with her a few days to get to know her better. Margo’s life story exposes why women must reject abuse early in the relationship before the monster is made. She gave me insights about the support women need to leave their abusers, how important it is to see violence and name it for what it is.
After that I started the Indigogo campaign “I Am Unbeatable”. It was a wonderful experience – I am thankful for all the help I got, especially from photographers. And, more emails from women who’ve experienced domestic violence followed. One person had written to me about his daughter back in 2001 when she was just getting involved with an older guy who was controlling her. Everything I heard about him painted trouble for this girl. She had no freedom. He kept getting her pregnant – she wasn’t allowed to be a girl ever. And she had to obey him 24/7. At that time the parents felt helpless because the girl was afraid to tell the truth – how scared she was. She thought it was her fault and she had to make the best of her situation.
This young woman’s story is important on multiple levels. She left him, but he controls her life the way he always has by remote control.
Society is colluding with her abuser.
After a woman leaves, it gets worse before it gets better. But then after it gets worse it starts to feel insanely good. This is also the part I must show, how good it gets when you get the hang out of living without being under the threat of constant rape and violence.
I believe this will change the way people think.
CPG: Is this what you will be showing the public with “I Am Unbeatable”?
DF: Look, nobody should think it’s easy to leave an abuser. Of the total domestic violence homicides, about 75% of the victims were killed as they attempted to leave or after they left. Many women stay because they are scared. They know better than anyone else what he is capable of. First they think they can change him by proving their love is unconditional and they are better than any women he’s ever been with. The meaner he gets she sees more clearly it’s time to leave. The whole time she is hearing him say if I can’t have you, no one will. That’s how they weave their spell. Batterers are deceptive, especially with themselves. The courts make it easy for them to get away with every trick in the book.
This is what I intend to show. Because once you have an abusive man in your life its not just a matter of walking away – you are stuck with him until he is arrested and held accountable for his behavior.
I hope to show the aftermath, the problems with the courts, the police, financial burdens, and the time it takes to look after kids with endless emotional problems.
I’ll move in with them and document everything.
I hope to show that the rewards outweigh the dangers. When a woman becomes unbeatable she will not allow that man to destroy her life anymore. Even if the system fails her, she will persist until she finds the way. My job as a photographer is to expose how negligent our society is and how ignorant attitudes can get innocent people killed.
CPG: Obviously you have done this topic before. You have a lot of experience with it, but how are you going to undertake it for a year or longer and still maintain your sanity?
DF: Do I seem sane to you?
(long pause from Candy…)
DF: You can say no.
DF: So, what do I have to maintain? Nothing.
CPG: I don’t know. I just feel like it would be so hard. So intense. I’d be a wreck. To be around this kind of abuse, to see it and live it along with these women would be incredibly taxing on your own life and your own emotional and mental health.
DF: Another thing that photographers need to have if they want to do this kind of work is grit… grit from head to toe.
When I’m working in places where there’s been violence, I never know when someone will explode. The difference is where I go there is only one photographer and one family. One on one.
CPG: That’s my point. Its gonna be insane. People need to know and see this abuse, see the face of it. You’re brave for opening the door. For exposing it, giving it a name, and creating a discourse around something that affects so many lives everywhere in the world. It will be so intense.
DF: Thanks. Who knows what will happen. It could turn into a reality show, if everyone collaborates. I want everyone to be real and let the world see their true face. Women, kids, abusers, lawyers, judges. Neighbors too. Only then will it work.