(Top photo: Donna Ferrato)
Back in the early 1980s, Donna Ferrato was photographing New York City nightlife when a couple she befriended at a sex club invited her back to their home. When the husband, Garth, began beating his wife, Lisa, Ferrato was there to capture it all with her camera.
Those photographs later became part of her iconic book, Living With The Enemy, published in 1991, part of a 30-year career that eventually made her the de facto domestic violence photographer. It also turned Ferrato into an activist, where she still tours and speaks about intimate partner violence while her work is exhibited throughout the world.
Ferrato understands what it means to photograph a woman who’s a victim of violence. She knows the power the image wields, and also knows how it can affect those women and others who have been abused. ANIMAL spoke on Tuesday morning to Ferrato, who like millions of other people, watched TMZ’s elevator-security video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knock out his wife, Janay, with two roundhouse punches to the face then drag her unconscious body into the lobby. Here’s why she thinks everyone, including Janay, should watch the video over and over again. Ferrato’s answers are edited for clarity and brevity.
Amy K. Nelson: Are you familiar with the Ray Rice story?
Donna Ferrato: Oh completely. I saw the first video when it only showed him pulling her out of door. And saw when [the NFL] only docked him a couple of games.
What do you think of the video becoming public?
It’s really time for women to stop getting away with this stuff like Rihanna did. Rihanna is the most famous failure in the fight to educate the public about domestic violence. She’s had so many opportunities and she blew it every time. It was really sickening how that went down and how everybody colluded with her. Everybody. Battered women’s activists said nothing about it, nobody. Nobody was saying to her, ‘You have a responsibility to stand tall not only for yourself, but for all women being treated like this.’
I feel really bad for Janay and I think that really the NFL is guilty of criminal behavior. They condoned this and let Ray Rice get away with this. Poor Janay. She’s just this empty shell, she can’t say the truth, she’s got her father pressuring her, she’s got Roger Goodell pressuring her. She’s got Ray Rice, who she must be terrified of. People have to put themselves in her shoes. And I understand how terrified and how horrible she feels and how confused. Somebody has got to get in there and talk to her. She’s got to listen to somebody like Keith Olbermann and … understand that she’s special, that she’s unique, that she can’t let anybody treat her like this. I don’t care how much money they have and how much power they have. She needs to sit in a room with Tina Turner for a day and talk to her about abused women and the fact that we cannot feel sympathy to these men.
And what Ray Rice did? He couldn’t pick her up in his arms and carry her somewhere so she could regain consciousness? That just shows what a criminal he is, what a lowlife scumbag. It really was so shocking, it was like watching a murderer at work.
It’s really interesting that you said how shocking this was, considering what you’ve seen and documented in your career. Why does that stand out to you?
Because we see it on film. Because whenever we see something on film, it’s even more powerful. When I showed on film, [Garth beating up Lisa] that was really powerful. And yes, countless people saw it and it changed their minds. Well, watching this big-time football player, first spit in his fiancee’s face…this is real time it’s happening right in front of our eyes. It’s not even a person in that room, it’s the elevator camera. It’s totally impartial. There’s no emotional entanglement. It’s a robot camera documenting the whole thing. And then we can see it, play by play. Look at how excited people get when they watch these grand football plays and how everybody wants to watch it again and again and again…Well, now we can watch this again and again and again and watch Ray Rice beat up a woman. Roger Goodell is also a criminal; he’s also complicit in this behavior. He tried to give Ray Rice a pass and it failed miserably and they’re both going down in flames. Rice needs to go to jail and then he needs to get into an anger management program for at least five years.
(Photo: Donna Ferrato)
When you published your images did you get brushback from women’s rights advocates saying you’re revictimizing the women?
Absolutely. Just the other day — I have a very big show opening at Vanderbilt University on Friday that is called I Am Unbeatable and I posted about it on my Facebook page. One woman, one big activist, wrote on the post and said ‘Well I’m glad to see she’s doing this kind of work now. I can applaud this for her. I remember when her work first came out and how provocative it was and how many of us were very uncomfortable with it.’ So I wrote to her and I said, ‘What were you uncomfortable with? She said, ‘I was fresh out of an abusive relationship as were many of the women I saw your show with and we felt like there shouldn’t be pictures of women like this shown, that you were revictimizing the women. That people shouldn’t see this.’
I used to have this type of attitude and condemnation from a lot of people. Even Ms. Magazine wouldn’t publish my pictures of battered women, they would only use models with fake black eyes. Nobody wanted to see the real image and nobody wanted to give the women credit for saying, ‘You know what? I’m not going to take this shit anymore. I’m going to show my bruises to the world. I’m not going to put up with it. I’m going to go public.’ I wasn’t showing any pictures of women who didn’t want to be seen. Every picture that I showed they had to sign a release.
You did that with consent. In this case, it’s without Janay’s consent.
Well [her assault] was in public. [The Rice’s] were in public. They were in a hotel, a public property. It’s different; I was in people’s houses. It’s really different than being in a public space. In a hotel elevator and in the lobby, when that kind of thing happens nobody has any kind of rights to privacy. Nobody. And it’s too bad for her but that’s the way it goes. Unfortunately, she’s involved with an abusive guy. I’m sure this is not the first time he cold-cocked her. Whether she understands right now what a blessing it was that there was a camera in the elevator is irrelevant. She’s got to step up to the plate now. She’s got to show what she’s made of. She needs a lot of help, like all women in abusive relationships, she needs a lot of help to get out of it. But she needs to get away from that man.
What else does she need?
She needs to be taken out of that situation. She needs to get stronger she needs to find out who she is, not in the shadow of this abusive man. He dragged her out like she was a dead body and couldn’t even carry her over the elevator threshold. What was he doing? She really needs to be around women like Tina Turner…She needs a lot of help. She’s just like Hedda Nussbaum. She did the same thing after she saw him beat their little daughter to a brain-dead comatose state. She was still defending him. When are people going to wake up and understand that battered women, who have been beaten down so long, have no sense of self anymore? It’s all about him. They can’t make positive statements for themselves. They can’t be trusted and if they have children they can’t be trusted with those children and they’re not making the right decisions for their children or for themselves. And I will stand by that remark with any domestic violence activist. They don’t like to talk like that. They like to think that the woman always knows what’s best for her, that we have to honor and respect her decisions. Well, I don’t. I don’t respect what Hedda Nussbaum did and gave her husband a pass. Hedda is a friend, she’s done so much good for battered women’s rights the last 30 years, but she was so badly battered she couldn’t see the truth for a very long time. They all keep standing by their man, all of these women who get beaten to a bloody pulp, they all stand by them. And all the women who stand by their men need a lot of help.
Do you think any of this, now with the video out and all the public criticism, that it will change anything?
Yeah, I think it’s going to change a lot. Looks at what’s happening right now [because of Ray Rice]. Because domestic violence activism has basically been dead the last 15 years because of all the wars we’ve been fighting. Everything we’ve tried to do in the 90s around the O.J. Simpson trial when he was exonerated, that when the best domestic violence education and public awareness happened. And honestly, the battered women’s movement has been totally silent these last 14 years. Now, I hope women are going to start fighting with their mouths and I hope they’re going to stand up really loud and clear and start talking about all the issues around domestic violence and how insidious it is and what a murderous epidemic it is. More women are dying today than ever and nobody is saying anything about it.
Ferrato’s exhibition, I Am Unbeatable, shadows a woman for three years who left an abusive relationship. It opens Friday at Vanderbilt University. Her work can be seen at donnaferrato.com.