LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph


Donna Ferrato — INsight Conversation LiveBlog

The Paramount Theater is filling up in anticipation of the second INsight conversation of LOOK3 2012, with Donna Ferrato.

Her photographs of domestic violence and its aftermath have become landmark essays in the field of documentary photography, challenging social attitudes and putting a spotlight on the devastating impact of everyday violence. Her iconic book, Living with the Enemy, published by Aperture in 1991, is considered the first clear visual journey into the dark heart of domestic abuse. It has been reprinted four times, selling a record number of 40,000 copies worldwide.


An intro for Burn Magazine’s Emerging Photographer Fund 2012, with images from the finalists.

Runners Up: Simon Ghizzoni, Giovanni Cocco

Grant Winner: Matt Lutton for Only Unity


Enter Vince Musi.

“I’ve always felt that LOOK3 is kind of the variety show of photography. We just aren’t on the radio because we haven’t figured out how to show photos on the radio. If we did, it might sound something like this….”

[Commence Vince's impressive impersonation of Garrison Keillor introducing Alex Chadwick, the star of National Public Radio and tonight's interviewer.]

“Donna Ferrato always looks like she’s up to something…Her photographs reveal that she is never indifferent….A passing glance becomes intimate and the most intimate moments become as light as a passing glance.”

“Donna Ferrato makes photographs that can’t be made and sometimes they happen behind closed doors….She has been the right person in the worst place at the wrong time.”


Alex: Let’s look at some pictures.

Donna: Well, first I have a question to ask you. I heard a rumor yo used to be a CIA interrogator.

AC: There’s some kind of truth in it.

DF: Are you planning to water board me?

AC: Wait, we’re already five pictures in here. This is you as a child.

DF: Yes, let’s go back one picture. This is me running around in the woods where I grow up. I show these to introduce everyone to my wonderful daddy-o, who is the greatest inspiration for me in all things. My father was a surgeon, but he always took photos like this. He set me up, he kept getting me to jump into his arms in the river over and over and he would step back and finally I fell into the water. He said, let this be a lesson to you, don’t trust anyone, not even your dad.

AC: You told someone you were never a good girl. What kind of girl were you?

DF: I was a headstrong girl. I was hard headed. This is my dad setting up a camera to take pictures of the birds. He was obsessed with birds.

AC: Did you think, I’m going to be a photographer like dad?

DF: No never, I wanted to be an actress. But I watched dad and how much passion he had for taking pictures. It was everything to him. He was irrepressible.

AC: So your family name was originally Pizzo-Ferrato.

DF: Right, it means “lace” and “steel.” We are both both things. But my mom is just steel. She’s tough.

AC: So you got shuffled around when you were young.

DF: Yeah, my dad pulled me out of Catholic school. My parents were pretty square. He wasn’t really a Catholic but his mother had beat it into him. He could never be a free man. I am a free woman but he could not be a free woman.

[Photo of Donna with Hilary Clinton and Living with the Enemy]

So I outbid all these rich women to got to tea with Hilary, I was scrounging money from the old men telling them I would take a letter for them with me. So there we are, and I let my dad come with us, and he took this picture. He brought the covers of Time magazine and books, I never would have done that. Inside he had put pictures of Hilary with her hair all blown out and she would see them and say, oh no! And then he would take the photo. And he was pushing me to go sit by her.

AC: This is a photo you took of your dad. [His hands with a checkers piece.]

DF: A few hours before he died. He was playing checkers pieces that night and one of the aides put that there.

This is my grandpa, the great patriarch of the family. I think when he died was the first time my dad was really depressed. He was also bipolar.

This was in San Francisco. I was at the Art Institute studying there. When I started to be a photographer, I wanted to be a newspaper photographer, but really I just wanted to hang out with people because I really like people.

This picture is where I had my first orgasm actually. Oh, ok, I won’t tell you about it.

This is where I started playing with self-portraits.

AC: Then you got the Leica and you said everything changed.

DF: It’s a very sensual, and essential, camera. These were portraits of these men in Belgium. Everybody said you had to be fashion and famous and that was all bullshit to me. I would go live with these men.

Oh, and at the Art Institute, my favorite photographer was Duane Michals, so that’s why I wrote on my photographs. But I wanted to tell real photos instead of making them up, because my dad always said, truth is better than fiction.

Like look at this man, he was married two times and didn’t even know the names of his wives because he was an alcoholic. But he was excited to open up and share his life with me because of the camera.

AC: I’ve heard that in Paris you used to dress up as a beggar and try to get bread in shops becasue if you’re really poor they’re supposed to feed you.

DF: That’s when I started taping up my camera, because I was sleeping in parks and I didn’t want people to steal my camera so I taped it up to look like it was broken and then I just kept doing it.

It’s red for stop and green for go. I need that, little indicators. Otherwise I get to crazy.

AC: The church?

DF: Yeah, he said he was really religious but when I looked in his freezer it was filled with meat. How can you be that religious if all you want to do is eat meat?


DF: I started living with people. I took pictures of this woman and I took her photos and showed them to her. She said, I am so wrinkly, I look so old. You can’t take any more photos of me, but you can live with me. And that was a really good lesson of just being with someone and not photographing.

AC: This woman’s not happy you’re taking her picture.

DF: Ehh, screw her. I loved those two balls of ice cream. Everything is phallic to me. Baguettes are phallic. I’m surrounded by balls and cocks. [Laughter]

[A double exposure]

Like Stanely said, it’s all about mistakes. I was so fortunate to shoot for so long with film. And of course I shoot some digital now, but you can’t come up with anything so unique like this. Well, maybe you can, but it’s not as unique.

And there’s Philip. Philip Jones Griffiths. He’s the next big man in my life. He really understood my dad and his bipolarity. Here he is photographing Fanny’s birth. It was so natural; we were always photographing each other every step of the way.

AC: So he’s a famous Vietnam War photographer….

DF: He didn’t really love me. He was always running off to Vietnam to get away from me. No, I’m kidding. Philip was a very loyal loving Welshman and loved our family. But then he went and saw his girlfriend of 15 years and nine months later his other daughter was born. But we’re not bourgeois, so I say, the more the merrier.



DF: Then living in the shelters….that abuse work never would have happened if it hadn’t been for Philip. All the editors didn’t get it and wouldn’t touch it. But Philip said, I’m the head of Magnum and I’ve never seen anything like this, so fuck them. If I didn’t have someone like Philip pushing me, I don’t think I would have been able to make that work so intensely.

Here’s Philip days away from death and he’s so busy, even though he can barely breathe, he’s having to sign hundreds of prints. He never believed photography was an art, so he would make all these incredible prints, only of Vietnam, but he would never sign them. So right before he died we had to get him to sign them all.

Here is Don McCullen and Philip. Don loved Philip with all his heart. But Philip was more intellectual, very into composing and all the techniques. Don was very emotional and intuitive. So when Philip was dying Don came to see him every single day. And Philip was in so much pain. He was oozing puss from every part, especially his legs.

But I didn’t understand that Don kept going out to the back yard, and it wasn’t to smoke, he would just go out for a while and then come back in. At one point I said, what are you doing out there? He said, I get very emotional when I see Philip like this, and I have to cry and I get very embarrassed. And then he said, Philip is always trying to hold my hand, and I don’t do that, I don’t even hold my son’s hand, I’m not a poufta. And I said, that’s very beautiful, you should do that. So I asked them for a photo together, but he was standing stiffly behind him and I said, no, I want you to go hold Philip in your arms. And you can see, he’s uncomfortable, but he’s doing it.

I know you’re all so pure. You would never tell someone to do something in your photograph. How many of you would tell Don McCullen to do this? I think we have to do more of that. So many people need permission to be human. And then all these photographers were really mad at me. How can you take these photos while he’s dying?

AC: How can you not?

We photograph each other at the most beautiful times in our lives. For me, death is a beautiufl thing. I’m not afraid of death at all. I’ve had the most powerful experiences with my dad and Philip when they were dying. It’s an honor to be with people when they are dying.


[Images of a couple fighting in the bathroom.]

DF: This woman said that she was afraid her husband was going to kill her. I went and saw them and they looked really bad so I said, you have to stop doing coke. So she hid the coke and then I hear them screaming while we’re sleeping. I went to the bathroom where he was hitting her. So I took the photo but then I took his hand and said, stop, what are you doing? He said, this is my wife, I have to teach her not to lie to me. He didn’t care about me taking pictures. I was like a gnat. But she wanted me there. She set this up for me.

DF: I would go to these editors and their foot would be shaking but they wouldn’t publish them. I even had model releases. But they did start paying me to do more work. Then I got the Eugene Smith grant. I had been working on this for four years at this point. And then Philip help me put together the dummy for Living with the Enemy. But that was like building a house, it was very emotional. Because by the time it was published we had broken up. Because Philip didn’t like my text.


DF: Now this is the woman who was the daughter of the couple fighting in the bathroom [now an adult]. And her step father was sodomizing her when she was young. She became an alcoholic so Fanny and I took her in and detoxed her. Then she died of psoriasis.

I used a my abuse photos in a series of ads during the Giulliani administration to help get support and money for shelters. When I got big stories I would always make the editors pay to the shelters too.

This was a great moment too, when I got the Eugene Smith grant.

That’s Howard Chatwick. He was really the third man in this trinity in my life. He taught me so much and was very patient.

This was when we did the big campaign for Giulliani. That was the year I started Domestic Abuse Awareness, Inc.

This was Guns ‘n’ Roses. When I shot them in ’91 for Life magazine, I said, who is Guns ‘n’ Roses? So I listened to them and thought they were pretty good. But they said, Axel Rose does not want to be photographed at all. And everyone was totally cool, but Axel was such a little jerk I wanted to teach him a lesson. So I would ignore him and go behind his back. Then his manager would come up and say, Axel is ok with you taking his picture. And I said, I’m not really interested in taking Axel’s picture.

Then one night I saw these cute little girls who were fans sitting next to this hooker with huge boobs, and the hooker said, don’t take a picture of me now. Then I told these girls, stay away from these guys, don’t let them give you drugs or tell you to take off your clothes. Then I saw the hooker later in the hot tub with the band and she said, “Hey, take my picture!” And I said, why now? And she said, now I’m naked and I’m really proud of these breasts!


[Got into a cab and this father said he heard that Axel had gotten these young girls naked and and taken pictures of them and they were going after him.]

DF: So I went back and sat Axel down and said, you really transgressed and now these fathers are coming after you. And everyone said, we checked their IDs they were all older than 18. And I said, that’s bullshit. He said, you know Donna you’re the only person who will tell me the truth. I said, you have to destroy that film. And we did. And after that I had carte blanche with him.

AC: Then you moved into a series of sex pictures.

DF: No, I was always photographing sex. Sex to me is the most important thing I can photograph. I think it’s a real problem when women are sitting around waiting for men to tell us how we can enjoy ourselves. So I just follow people around and break into their hotel rooms. I’m invisible.

AC: How’d you get to be invisible.

DF: I take a drug every morning.

No, there are always going to be people who believe in their sexuality and are really free with it. [Photo with about 8 naked people, including Donna.] I’m not going to be a freak. They’re all naked and I’m dressed like this? I’m not a freak. What would you do Alex?


AC: You said your pictures of sex are not erotic. Pictures of sex are kind of physical and sweaty, not idealized.

DF: Yeah, they’re real. They’re not airbrushed. No one is living out my fantasy here. They’re living their own fantasies. And they’re all adults.

DF: This was mid-70s in SF and at night I would prowl the gay bars on Polk St. The 70s were a great moment in the history of our liberation.

AC: But they trust you there. Like your father getting photos of you.

DF: Yeah, because I never have a feeling that I shouldn’t be there. This was a road trip I did with these nudists. They were high all the time…that was before 9/11. I wasn’t high before 9/11, but after that, I didn’t want to be straight anymore.


DF: Now this is probably the most important story I ever did. I’m not an agency photographer; no one owns me. I have no contracts with anyone and I never have. So most of my stories come from things I read in the paper. When I saw this story about a family of 8 being trapped in this house fire who died and I couldn’t figure it out. I didn’t understand why it happened. So I tried to get an assignment. But everyone said, these are just poor black people. Who is going to care about this in a few months? So I said, fuck you, and I went anyway.

When I first get there there are hundreds of people there for the funeral in the gymnasium. They only had enough money to get three coffins to bury 8 people. So again I’m crawling around between people’s skirts. Then we drive out to the cotton fields where they’re going to bury them. Then what I found out later from talking to the woman whose children and mother were killed in this fire. And it turns out that her father had beat her mother and she had left and become a wild child and landed in jail.

This was the bars from the windows. All these people heard them melting inside but they couldn’t get them out. The landlord was so cheap he didn’t put doorknobs in the apartment. So this guy tried to drive his car into the apartment but he was afraid it would blow up. So everyone was trying to figure out how to get them out. And I still couldn’t figure it out.

So here’s the landlord and he put bars on all the windows because he didn’t want the drug dealers getting in. So these people were living in fear like in prison cells in their own homes. But he had all the keys.

At the funeral someone asked me to come up and talk. I said, I didn’t know this family, but I was so sick about it that I had to come here and try to understand this. Because I know these kids were studying really hard and this grandma took really good care of these kids. So it was not their time and it wasn’t god’s plan. You need to figure out what happened here. This is your community and you need to know what the laws are.

So the minister said, you come to these committee meetings we’ll set up. So then these meetings kept happening every week. And I went back to New York City with all these photos. And I would push the editor really hard, until finally he said, ok, go do it.

Then two months later, I see in USA Today, those little pieces about what’s happening. The people in Bruge Mississippi, they went to Jackson and they got the law changed. Those bars are now illegal.

So whenever you think your pictures can’t do anything. That’s a lot of baloney. Your pictures are only as good as your voice. You have to stand up for your pictures.


DF: [Path Train picture where there was an beer advertisement of a woman in a swimsuit.] I didn’t like that, I didn’t want to walk on this woman’s body. So I started asking people how they felt about it. The boys were all, like, yeah, my sister doesn’t have a body like that. But the girls were all really uncomfortable. So I went after Annheiser Bush. We told them we were going to boycott them and shut them down if they didn’t take the ads down. And within two weeks the signs were removed. So that was pretty good too.

AC: Now this woman is a leader of the KKK.

DF: Yeah, even women scare me. They were the ones I really had to stop working on. They would put out these bags of pennies for kids and then the most hateful racist things. During this period, I knew they were going to do an induction of men and women. They told me to go away and come back later and they would take me for a cross burning. So my friend and I were sitting in the car drinking some wine waiting for them. And all of a sudden I saw the trees were moving and they were advancing on me. And they stopped me and said, you don’t go until we tell you to go. They kept us in a place until the cross burning. And at that point I didn’t even care about their stupid cross burning. Now they play Negro spirituals during the burning. It’s really creepy.


DF: This was a story on child sexual abuse in South Africa. This poor girl had been raped by her uncle. She was incredibly suicidal. She’d taken all these drugs to try to kill herself. This is the story of Micindy, a little girl who had been raped by her neighbor. She was being sodomized and then she had syphilis all through her anus. Then Micindy had to point him out for him to be put in jail. So I asked him, how could you do that? They believe that having sex with a virgin will cure them of AIDS or whatever illness they have. And then this, I photographed the trial. He was convicted for two years, which, over there, is a long time for something like this.


DF: This is TriBeCa. I’m not like one of those photographers who always have to go alone. I really believe in the big group gang bangs. We’re always taking pictures of each other all the time. It’s important to me to take pictures of people I love being with, not just strangers.

AC: Now stop here, what’s your problem with the Pope?

DF: The pope doesn’t really protect women. He doesn’t say anything about the terrible things all those priests did.

So I had a friend meet me in the alley one night, she’s a singer, really beautiful. And I gave her this huge dildo I had and this buck knife. So this is my message to the Pope, you better get your boys to keep your hands off our children or we will dismember you and all your priests.


This is my “unbeatable” project.

AC: You want to tell people what an unbeatable is?

DF: Unbeatable is someone who gets out of a bad relationship sooner than later, before their pride is broken down. And they don’t ever look back.


I wanted to leave you with a hopeful image, but I have to tell you about my mother, she did a really bad thing. You want to hear what it was?

My father was not a faithful man. He had affairs. And I have two sisters from outside our family. I love them both. My dad was such a passionate man, so I understood.

I told you how passionate he was about photography. Our house was piled up with film and cameras. So one time when he was in the second really big depression having shock treatments and feeling so much pain. My mother went into the basement and put thousands of his slides and put them in black plastic bags and dragged them out to the curb where the garbage truck was waiting. And all that family history was gone.

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  • Digiphotoneil

    Thankyou for writing this up! Very interesting thoughts from an admirable person!

  • http://andrewbrinkhorst.photoshelter.com andrew b

    So glad this is here. When I walked out of her talk, all I could say was “Wow”.

  • http://Rock-N-RollPhotos.com Chester Simpson

    I remember Donna Ferrato and Stanley Greene attending the San Francisco Art Institute, developing film and printing in the darkrooms. Donna had a Leica that was painted psychedelic colors and Stanley had to have an hour of Jazz in the morning before he started his day. Those where the days of film and chemicals and we lived in the darkrooms printing for several days drinking coffee. You had to be creative and talented, to be a photographer at the Art Institute or you didn’t last.