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”. 

Join us now for a conversation with Donna. An interview that was supposed to have been done by me ended up being done by Candy Pilar Godoy, my top shotgun rider. She admires Donna so so much and had just seen her as a Legend photographer at Look3 in Virginia. So I just set the stage. Let these two strong women talk, relate, letting serendipity and stream of consciousness rule.

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?

DF: Yes.

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.

CPG: 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.


Related links

Donna Ferrato

“I Am Unbeatable”


38 thoughts on “Donna Ferrato – Conversation”

  1. Excellent conversation! applauses all the way.
    Very intuitive to let Candy continue the conversation.
    I think it would have drifted completely in the opposite direction if you (David) would have stepped in.

    What a great project to bring awareness too.

    Thank you BURN!
    Thank you David
    Thank you Candy
    Thank you Donna!

  2. “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.”-df


    great interview with a great photographer who is (fuck the photography, but that too) an inspiration as a human being….

    the I Am Unbeatable project is an awesome project…and i too (as i promised at Facebook) waiting to taste Donna’s blood too in support of it….

    Donna, all i can say is just to remind you of the great poet Sharon Olds…(abused as a child)…a line from her poem, “I Go Back To May 1937”

    I say
    Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

    Here is the poem in full…the save Tiger-fierceness that DF has shown her entire life….and thanks for the interview and terrific read! :))

    p.s….and if i stutter too from time to time, can i seek remedial help as well? ;)))))

    ok, for DF:

    I Go Back to May 1937

    I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
    I see my father strolling out
    under the ochre sandstone arch, the
    red tiles glinting like bent
    plates of blood behind his head, I
    see my mother with a few light books at her hip
    standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks,
    the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
    sword-tips aglow in the May air,
    they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
    they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
    innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
    I want to go up to them and say Stop,
    don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
    he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
    you cannot imagine you would ever do,
    you are going to do bad things to children,
    you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
    you are going to want to die. I want to go
    up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
    her hungry pretty face turning to me,
    her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
    his arrogant handsome face turning to me,
    his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
    but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
    take them up like the male and female
    paper dolls and bang them together
    at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
    strike sparks from them, I say
    Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

    –sharon olds

  3. I had no idea Donna Ferrato was such a fun person.

    Donna, I like your comment about war photography since 2001. There has been some amazing war photography, but still I think you are exactly right.

    When you live with abused women whose a users keep coming back to abuse them some more, do they ever threaten or go after you? If so, how do you deal with them? They must really resent you. I applaud you not only for dedication and empathy, but for your courage.

  4. Pingback: — bokehlist

  5. “if you want to break new ground, come up with your own ideas and forget about stability. Don’t let anyone control your mind.”
    I love it! Thank you.

  6. a civilian-mass audience


    “If it looks like shit, smells like shit, and feels like shit, you don’t have to actually eat it to know it’s shit.”
    Seth Eisenberg

    oime…i have been eating “shit” for a long time…verbal,emotional “shit”…is shit too.

    WE ARE UNBEATABLE…because when there is vision,there is a way…WE CAN DO IT…

    thank you,yeap,THANK YOU ALL…it’s time to break through…

  7. and to make everyone laugh here is some bellyaching from laughter news, coming straight
    of the heart of BIBLE BELT ( heart of Texas ):

    RELIGIOUS CHEERLEADERS !!??? dressed on Bible Banners:
    Start reading / laughing / crying , article below:


    (live from Texas: ZERO (0) progress down here, in fact , just the opposite.. Shame :(

  8. No, you’re not going to do it.

    AKAKY IRL: Come on, you know you want to do it. Your Greek pal brought the subject up. It’s not like you’ve been spray painting Romney slogans all over that blog, you know.

    AKAKY: Look, just because you’re spray painting Romney slogans all over the damn place doesn’t mean that I have to as well. I go to Burn for peace and quiet. They’ve got Panos and Jim Powers over there to raise trouble. They don’t need any help from you. So shut the hell up, would you, please?

    AKAKY IRL: You’re a very sorry individual, if you don’t mind me saying so.

    AKAKY: I do mind, but that’s never stopped you before.

    AKAKY IRL: No, it hasn’t.

  9. “Mr. Weldon, the superintendent, said his decision was in response to a letter he received from the Freedom From Religion Foundation calling the banners unconstitutional. The Wisconsin-based group, which is made up of atheists and agnostics, has been active in Texas, unsuccessfully suing Gov. Rick Perry in federal court last year over his involvement in a Christian-centered prayer rally at a Houston stadium.”

    Rick aka BIBLEBELT Perry with the help from Saudi OIL $$$ friends “rules” Texas

  10. News of the day
    AP Transcript, White House Press Conference, 7 May 1915.

    White House Press Secretary J. Carny opened the press conference with a brief statement.

    Mr. Carny: First and foremost, the President and the First Lady would like to join all Americans in extending their deepest sympathies to the families of the passengers who died yesterday on the Lusitania. Tragic incidents like this one clearly demonstrate the need for improved iceberg reporting in the Atlantic shipping lanes. It is the President’s hope that Congress will appropriate the funds necessary for the Coast Guard to expand its iceberg patrols so that incidents like this one can never happen again. All right, first question. Helen?

    Miss Thomas, AP: Thank you, Jay. Let me see if I have this straight: it is the Administration’s position that the Lusitania was struck by an iceberg?

    Mr. Carny: Yes it is. All the intelligence we have right now points to this being a tragic accident. We have no information that says otherwise.

    Miss Thomas: Then what are we to make of the reports in the British press that claim that a German U-boat sank the Lusitania?

    Mr. Carny: We’ve seen those reports as well. First, I would point out that the British are hardly neutral observers here. They are at war with Germany, so if the British can make the Germans look bad then so much the better for them. This is part and parcel of that effort. The President is not going to allow this sort of bump in the road negatively impact American foreign policy. Second, an iceberg is an iceberg, simple as that. As far as we know, the iceberg had no political allegiance to either side in the European war. It was an entirely random act of God. Mr. Duranty?

    Mr. Duranty, New York Times: Jay, how can the Administration be so sure that the iceberg was not working for one side or the other? The British obviously want us to come in on their side. Could they have put the iceberg up to this in order to create a casus belli?

    Mr. Carny: That’s an interesting hypothesis, Walt, but the Office of Naval Intelligence has already investigated that possibility and they tell the Administration that neither the Allied powers nor the Central Powers have an iceberg capability. As far as we are concerned, this was a lone iceberg.

    Mr. Duranty: Just a quick follow-up, Jay. How do you account for some of the survivors’ claims that they saw a torpedo’s wake in the water just moments before the iceberg allegedly struck the ship?

    Mr. Carny: Whales.

    Mr. Duranty: I beg your pardon?

    Mr. Carny: What those people saw were whales creating a bubble net to catch fish with. There’s a very interesting article in this month’s National Geographic magazine about the phenomenon, complete with a colored Autochrome insert of the whales and the bubble net. Fascinating stuff.

    Mr. Duranty: Are you serious?

    Mr. Carny: Totally. Look, Walt, the people who claimed they saw torpedo wakes in the water aren’t naval officers. I doubt they would know what a torpedo’s wake looked like if it came up to them on the street and knocked their hats off. Let’s face reality here: being on a ship that strikes an iceberg and sinks is a highly stressful experience. You’re tired, you’re overwrought, you’re cold, you’re under more pressure than you’ve ever been in your entire life. As any good lawyer can tell you, those conditions do not make for reliable eyewitness testimony. On the psychological aspect of this tragedy, I should point out that our Embassy in London will be providing grief counseling and psychological services for any American survivor who feels they need the help. Mr. Matthews?

    Chris Matthews, Washington Daily Tingle: Jay, let’s get down to brass tacks here. There’s more than a little speculation here and in London that the reason the President is sticking to this iceberg story is that he intends to run for President next year on the platform of he kept us out of the war and so he’ll do whatever it takes to keep us out of the war, including ignoring the deaths of 124 Americans on the Lusitania. Anything to that?

    Mr. Carny: I don’t think that that deserves an answer. The idea that the President of the United States would use a disaster like this to advance his re-election campaign next year is just too cynical for words, even by Washington standards.

    Mr. Matthews: Then why would this iceberg go after the Lusitania?

    Mr. Carny: We don’t have all the facts yet, but according to the Office of Naval Intelligence this iceberg objected to a movie about the Titanic sinking now showing in New York. The iceberg apparently found the depiction of icebergs in that film demeaning and offensive. The Attorney General is looking into the matter now.

    Mr. Matthews: Looking into the matter how?

    Mr. Carny: The United States Marshals have brought the producer of the film so we can question him and find out what his motivations were in making this film. And we have also asked the Mayor of New York to close down any theater showing this film.

    Mr. Matthews: What about the First Amendment?

    Mr. Carny: What about the First Amendment? It’s a movie about the Titanic, Chris. It’s not as if the producer was making a movie with Charlie Chaplin doing something insignificant like cooking pork chops over a stack of burning Korans, after all. We have to be sensitive to the emotional context here.

    Mr. Matthews: Hey, works for me.

    Mr. Carny: Thanks, Chris. Miss Mitchell?

    Miss Mitchell, National Biscuit Company: Jay, this iceberg attack took place off the southern coast of Ireland. Will the Attorney General be looking at the possibility of Fenian involvement?

    Mr. Carny: At this point, Andrea, nothing is off the table, but I can’t go further into the details at this point as the Attorney General’s investigation is ongoing.

    Miss Mitchell: Will the Attorney General be asking for any cooperation from the British government?

    Mr. Carny: We will be, that’s obvious. The Lusitania was a British ship and it sank in international waters off the coast of Ireland. So cooperation is, almost by definition, a given in this case. I should point out, however, that this cooperation does not mean that the United States is taking a position on the outcome of the European war. This is purely a police matter. No one should read anything more into this cooperation than that.

    Miss Mitchell: So this should not be seen as an attempt to influence the Irish and/or the German vote next year?

    Mr. Carny: Absolutely not. Okay, who’s next? Jorge?

    Jorge Ramos, El Excelsior: Jay, isn’t the southern coast of Ireland a bit far south for an iceberg this time of year?

    Mr. Carny: Not at all. Remember that the Titanic was struck in the middle of April three years ago.

    Mr. Ramos: That’s true, but the Titanic was struck in the middle of the North Atlantic. The Lusitania went down in the Southwest Approaches, which is nowhere near Greenland or the Arctic pack ice. And your statement about whales doesn’t seem to hold water, either. Our London bureau has interviewed many of the survivors and every eyewitness we have talked to says the same thing, that they saw a line of bubbles coming straight for the ship’s hull, followed by two large explosions. None of the eyewitnesses say anything at all about an iceberg.

    Mr. Carny: Look, Jorge, you can do as much original reporting as you want, but it’s not going to change our position. We have the facts: the Lusitania was hit by an iceberg and sank. Period. You’re putting way too much emphasis on what the survivors thought they saw and not enough on what the Administration is saying here now.

    Mr. Ramos: Let me go through this again, Jay, just to make sure I’ve got the details right. The President is saying that an iceberg that no one saw sank a British ship in a declared war zone because the iceberg didn’t like a movie that no one saw in New York. Furthermore, the torpedo wake that the survivors did see was in fact a pod of whales traveling in a perfectly straight line, a phenomenon unknown in nature, and that these whales were hunting fish or krill or something that was prepared to blow itself up in order to get away from the whales. Is that right?

    Mr. Carny: Precisely, except without the hint of sarcasm I’m hearing, Jorge.

    Mr. Ramos: Just a quick follow-up, Jay. Is it true that the Lusitania was carrying war supplies, including munitions, bought here in the United States in its hold? And wouldn’t the sale of munitions to Great Britain require some sort of Congressional approval?

    Mr. Carny: That’s a lot of baloney, Jorge. It’s 1915; isn’t there a revolution going on in Mexico? Why don’t you go cover that instead of peddling these idiotic rumors at a White House press conference, for crying out loud? Anyway, in other news, the President will be traveling to Philadelphia tomorrow to spend a little time at the Philadelphia Cricket Club’s newly refurbished golf course. He’ll be back here at the White House Tuesday of next week. Okay, that’s it for me. Have a nice day, everyone.


  11. Pingback: NEW: Burn Magazine interview with Donna Ferrato : Donna Ferrato

  12. Thanks for the interview Donna. A f….ing hard topic to take pictures and tell a story.
    One to One.
    One violent against One pacific.
    Looking forward to see the projet.

    @ CANDY or DAH:
    What about for next interview instead of typing it (that I really appreciate and love reading) you can record it with a small camera with a tripod on the table. Hence I (we) can listen Donna’s voice as well as Candy and yours. A VIMEO link would be nice.

    Have a nice Weekend in LA

  13. Pingback: “Photographers must respect themselves and stick together.” Donna Ferrato | Barbara Doux


    i vimeo interview could be nice i suppose, but i think most likely impractical…would require an incredible amount of editing hours…even these interviews are very very labor intensive….still , we might find a way..thanks for thinking….

  15. DONNA

    you are one of a kind..thank you for taking the time with us…so much appreciated…and so so too too much fun…looking forward to meeting you again soonest…but no more Genius weed….ha ha

    hugs, love, david

  16. Pingback: Interviews and Talks | October 2012

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