Donna Ferrato brought a quick wit and joie de vivre to an onstage interview with NPR personality Alex Chadwick at the LOOK3 photo festival in Charlottesville on Friday afternoon. A unifying theme of their wide-ranging discussion was Ferrato’s belief in the life-affirming power of emotional intimacy and mutual respect that has informed her work and career.
Ferrato paid homage to two men in particular, whom she credited with shaping her career: her father, an accomplished amateur photographer Ferrato praised for living life with such passion, and the late Magnum photographer Philip Jones Griffiths, with whom Ferrato had a daughter–and a rather complicated personal relationship.
Her father, she said, “was the greatest teacher for me in all aspects of life.” Ferrato said he filled the house with his photographs, and she showed a number of examples that demonstrated his talent as a photographer, as well as an outrageous sense of fun. One image, for instance, was a portrait of an attractive flight attendant he had talked into posing with a bag of bloody fish that Ferrato’s father was carrying home from a fishing trip.
“My father and I are the same–both soft and hard, whereas my mother is all hard,” Ferrato said. “My mother wore the pants in the house. She wanted me to be a lady.” (In a heartbreaking story at the end of the talk, Ferrato told how her mother threw away a lifetime’s worth of her father’s photographic work over the betrayal of his infidelity. “All the family history that this man had done with so much love,” Ferrato said. “Gone.”)
Ferrato wanted to be an actress, she said. “But I watched [my father,] and how much passion he had taking pictures. He was irrepressible, my old man.”
When Ferrato picked up photography, she “just wanted to be a newspaper photographer. Mostly I just wanted to hang out with people because I really like people,” she said. “They would take me to their homes and tell me their stories.”
Ferrato said she was able to work that way “to her heart’s content” during the 70s, 80s, and 90s, before post 9/11 wariness made street photography so much more difficult. She is known for her impossibly intimate work, most notably her images of domestic violence, but also images of friends, neighbors, and strangers in completely unguarded, everyday moments.
In the images she projected during the talk, most subjects seemed oblivious to Ferrato’s camera, a Leica, which completely changed her photography when she got it, she said. “It was so unobtrusive,” she said. “It’s essential, and sensual.”
Her domestic violence work shows confrontation and abuse unfolding at a close, visceral range that would have amazed Robert Capa (who is famously credited for having said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.”)
Ferrato said that without the support of Philip Jones Griffiths for her domestic violence work, she never would have had the confidence in herself to pursue it, or get so deeply embedded with her subjects.
At the time she was working on the project, editors wouldn’t touch it, Ferrato explained. That fed her doubts about it, and discouraged her. Ferrato recounted, “Philip said, ‘I’m the president of Magnum. I’ve never seen anything like this so fuck all those editors who keep saying no.” He insisted she continue working on the project, telling her, “I believe in you.”
Griffiths ended up designing her seminal book about domestic violence, called Living With the Enemy (1994). “Nobody is more passionate than Philip,” she said. “[Producing that book] was very emotional. It was like building a house. By the end of it, we were broken up, because Philip didn’t like my text.”
Ferrato explained how she managed to get images of one of her subjects, Garth, in flagrant acts of abusing his wife, Lisa (the couple was central to the project.) Ferrato was spending the night at their house with her three-month old daughter, after Lisa expressed fear that Garth might harm her, and invited Ferrato to come over. In the middle of the night, Ferrato heard Garth and Lisa fighting down the hall in the bathroom. She grabbed her camera, ran toward the commotion, and started taking pictures. “He doesn’t give a fuck” that he’s being photographed, Ferrato told the Look3 audience, with one of the images projected on the screen behind her. “He’s a man in his master bathroom.” Ferrato says she tried to stop him, and his reaction was, “She’s my wife. I have to teach her not to lie to me.”
Asked later how she got men like Garth to sign photo releases for such incriminating pictures, Ferrato explained that they are blinded by their egos, and see nothing wrong with their behavior. In fact, Garth saw himself as the victim, Ferrato said.
Ferrato doesn’t stand for the abuse of women and children, and her deep offense over that drove her domestic violence work. It has also led to more recent stories about abuse and injustice, notably a story about the rape of children in South Africa. She has also taken up her camera in a campaign against the objectification of women in advertising. (She also told a story of how she tried to warn some under-age Guns’ n Roses fans to keep their clothes on when they appeared to Ferrato like sitting ducks back stage at a concert. Later that night, she said, she forced band leader Axl Rose to destroy naked pictures that he ended up taking of those same girls, in order to protect them–and him.)
Ferrato is no prude, however. Her interview with Chadwick was preceded by a warning that the presentation included explicit content that might not be appropriate for children. And it wasn’t just a warning about her domestic violence work. The talk was laced with Feratto’s joyful, uproarious bawdiness.
When an image of two women eating ice cream cones appeared on screen, Chadwick obsrve that one of the women “is not happy you’re taking her picture.”
“Ah, screw her,” Ferrato shot back, more for effect than with actual malice. She added, “Everything is phallic to me. Baguettes, ice cream cones. We’re surrounded by balls and cocks.”
“I always photographed sex even before domestic violence,” she told Chadwick. She didn’t have a problem with sex, she explained. “I think it’s a problem that females have to wait around for men to tell them what pleases [the men]” instead of asserting their own sexuality.
At one point, a picture of Ferrato photographing herself in a mirror with an orgy under way in the background appeared on the screen. Ferrato was naked. It helped explain how she manages to make people comfortable in front of her camera. But Chadwick questioned whether Ferrato’s nudity in that situation crossed a line.
With no apologies, Ferrato said, “I’m naked. I’m not going to be a freak” by being the only one wearing clothes at an orgy, she said. Pointing to the clothes she was wearing, Ferrato rounded on Chadwick, albeit in a good-natured way: “Do you think I’m going to be in there dressed like this? What would you do?”
Quoting from an interview Ferrato gave more than a decade ago, Chadwick reminded Ferrato that she had pointed out that her pictures of sex aren’t erotic, unlike the images of Helmut Newton
“They’re not airbrushed, they’re not stylized,” Ferrato said of her images of sex. “Nobody is living out my masturbatory fantasies. They’re not being coerced into this.” Ferrato said, in effect, that her sex images celebrate the passionate give-and-take of consenting adults. “This was a great time in the liberation of our sexuality. The seventies were a great time.”
More generally, what Ferrato has celebrated through her work is the sanctity and joy of trusting relationships in all forms. And she brought that sensibility to photographs of her own family photographs of Griffiths and their daughter. Just because it’s family, she explained to the Look3 audience, doesn’t mean you shoot head-on portraits that show you and your loved ones “just looking at each other.”
Ferrato projected an image Griffiths shot of her lying naked on their bed, right after she delivered their daughter. And she showed some of her images of Griffiths over the years, including recent images of him as he was dying of cancer. Don McCullin, who was one of Griffiths’ closest friends, came to see him every day toward the end, Ferrato said. She noticed during those visits that McCullin would often go alone to the back yard, but she wasn’t sure why. Finally, she asked him.
“He said, ‘I get very emotional when I see Philip like this, and I have to cry.” He also expressed fear of intimacy with men, even an old friend as close as Griffiths (they met as Fleet Street photographers more than 40 years ago). Ferrato said she asked McCullin, “What are you afraid of?” and then ordered him to stand behind Philip so she could photograph them. “And I said, ‘Go ahead, hold him in your arms.’ ” McCullin complied.
“How many of you would tell Don McCullin to go do something?” Ferrato asked the audience, as she projected the picture. She continued, “This is what we have to do more. So many people need permission to be human.”