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Donna Ferrato: A Handmaid’s Tale

Sensitive Content – the following article contains references to sensitive topics, which some readers may find upsetting.

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This article was printed in the Power & Empowerment issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, available for purchase through the BJP Shop or delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

The election of Donald Trump incited Ferrato to revisit her archive. Over the next four years, she created Holy. A publication comprising five decades of documentation on the oppression, suffering and strength of women, from the sexual revolution of the 60s through to the #metoo era of today. It is a reminder, in a post-Trump world, of what has come to pass — and what could still yet be

Donna Ferrato hangs up the phone to me. Within the next hour, a mob of Donald Trump supporters will storm the US Capitol, Washington, DC: red-hatted hordes pouring through the marble-clad building’s windows and doors. It is Wednesday 06 January 2021, the day following the Georgia Senate runoffs, where the Democrats took control of the Senate, and hours after Trump addressed thousands of MAGA supporters in Ellipse park, just south of the White House. Still adamant that the Democrats had stolen the election, Trump, whether he meant it or not, incited the crowd: “We will never give up. We will never concede. It doesn’t happen… We’re going to the Capitol.”

At 3 pm, an hour after our initial call, Ferrato emails: “Do you see what is going on now in DC? It is sedition time,” she writes. Indeed, the timing of our conversation feels serendipitous. The focus of our discussion is Ferrato’s latest monograph, Holy, published by powerHouse Books. The publication is not exclusive to Trump’s America – it collates her work documenting women’s fight for equality from the past 50 years – however, she conceived of it at the start of his presidency, one that masqueraded beneath the guise of empowering the American people while simultaneously infringing upon the rights of some of the country’s most vulnerable groups. Yet following the chaos and bleakness of the previous four years, bookended by a pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and, finally, Trump’s failure to be re-elected, it seems that there may be hope on the horizon. “We are entering the Age of Aquarius,” says Ferrato. Astrologers believe that an astrological age shifts around every 2150 years when the Earth’s rotation moves into a new zodiac sign during the March equinox. Our next astrological age is Aquarius. Although there is no defined date for this, astrologically, it describes an era of collectivism and truth.

All images © Donna Ferrato.
All images © Donna Ferrato.
All images © Donna Ferrato.

Ferrato did not foresee the sense of hope that the outcome of the 2020 election would instil in her and countless others. “I thought many people in this country had lost their way,” she says. “[The government] was humiliating, disempowering, and mocking everyone who stands for humanity” – including women. To date, 26 women have accused the former president of “unwanted sexual contact”. Throughout his presidency, Trump’s rhetoric further cemented his misogyny; the infamous Access Hollywood recording of him saying, “Grab ‘em by the pussy”, released in the lead-up to the 2016 election, only the tip of the iceberg. Within Trump’s administration itself, women held a minority of appointments. The president also pressured government agencies to omit words relating to reproductive and sexual rights, such as ’foetus’ and ’transgender’, in documents and resources, or to delete those resources altogether. 

Legislatively, from the moment he entered office, Trump and his administration set to work chipping away at the health, employment, economic security and general rights of women, LGBTQ+, and other minority groups at home and abroad. For instance, Trump’s administration cut funding to the United Nations Population Fund, which provides family planning and reproductive services to over 150 countries worldwide. At home, Trump reduced funding to federal agencies supporting reproductive health and victims of domestic abuse. He nominated the conservative justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was also accused of sexual assault, to the Supreme Court, thereby threatening the landmark 1973 ruling Roe v Wade, which protects a woman’s right to have an abortion without excessive government restriction. The list goes on. 

All images © Donna Ferrato.
All images © Donna Ferrato.
All images © Donna Ferrato.

The defining moment

As the “pussy grabber” – as Ferrato has referred to him – and his administration set to work, the photographer hastily began assembling her work into what would become Holy. A publication that rifts off the Bible and subverts the Holy Trinity (three sections divide it: the mother, the daughter, and the others who believe in women), Holy is a call to action. It celebrates the strength and prowess of women (“Believers. Non-believers. Young. Old. Cis. Trans. Living. Dead,” in Ferrato’s words) in the face of a world continually threatening their safety and freedom. The book collates work spanning the period from the sexual revolution of the 1960s to the #MeToo era of today and thereby attests to the reality that sexism and violence against women never really disappear. Instead, they inhabit new guises within workplaces and homes and the systems and infrastructures that compose our patriarchal world. “I was so down. I was like a crazy woman,” says Ferrato, reflecting on her mindset following the 2016 presidential election. “But, through the process [of creating the book], I was empowered. I was like a dry piece of cotton, and I needed these women to fill me up and make me wet and wild again. Reliving these women’s courage gave me hope.” The process of reflecting on the tenacity of women, despite their abuse and oppression, strengthened Ferrato; a strength she hoped the book would instil in others.

Holy encompasses myriad threats facing women, including domestic violence, the subject for which Ferrato’s work is best known. It was witnessing domestic violence in person, almost 40 years ago, that incited her to commit her practice to document it. A grainy black-and-white image captures this moment [below]. A husband reaches out to hit his wife; his hand obscures her face, but, reflected in the mirror behind them, we see Ferrato, camera raised, bearing witness. It was 1982, and the photographer, on commission for Japanese Playboy magazine, had been spending time with wealthy swingers, including wife and husband, Elisabeth and Bengt. One night, enraged by Elisabeth supposedly slighting him, Bengt beat his wife into the corner of the bathroom in their suburban New Jersey home. It was the ease with which he hit her and the entitlement he felt that galvanised Ferrato. Domestic violence was terrifying, but in that instance, it was also unsettlingly mundane. “This is the moment that changed my life,” she told The Guardian in 2019. “It changed Elisabeth’s life. I don’t know what it did to her husband – I don’t think he cared at all. But for the two of us women, it changed our lives.”

All images © Donna Ferrato.

Elisabeth eventually left her husband and “remade herself as a single mother,” reads the handwritten annotation that accompanies the image. (Ferrato wrote annotations to sit alongside every photograph in Holy.) Ferrato, meanwhile, documented domestic violence to raise awareness of it. Between 1976 and 1987, a reported 25,765 women in the US were killed by their partners, a figure that does not reflect the thousands of abused women who did not die. The photographer spent the following decade attending demonstrations and conferences, frequenting courtrooms and emergency rooms; living in women’s shelters and prisons; attending abusers’ therapy groups and women’s self-defence classes, and riding with the police. Her emotive, black-and-white aesthetic lent itself to the subjects she was photographing. Ferrato candidly framed the anguish, terror, and strength of the abused women and their children behind her lens. However, photo editors were generally reluctant to publish the images. To get the work into the world, the photographer put together the landmark photobook Living with the Enemy, designed by her then-partner, photographer Philip Jones Griffiths, and published by Aperture in 1991. At the time, the project enacted social and political change, helping to pressure Congress to pass the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, designed to improve the prosecution of individuals who committed acts of violence against women. 

All images © Donna Ferrato.

Taking back control

While working on domestic violence, Ferrato continued photographing sex clubs, swingers’ events and other forms of experimentation and lovemaking; subjects that had compelled her since the start of her career. In 2004, she published Love & Lust, which captures human intimacy in varied forms. Holy is distinct in that it blends Ferrato’s work on domestic violence with her work on sex. Previously, Ferrato kept these two focuses separate, but to bring the two subjects together is to begin to depict “the whole spectrum of the truth of what it is to be a woman”, as her stepdaughter and feminist writer Katherine Holden describes it in one of the book’s forewords. Sex is central to women reclaiming control over their bodies and their lives. “The women’s movement has always been about sex, about women reclaiming their orgasms, abortions, births – agency over their own lives and wombs – from men who try to control them,” writes journalist Claudia Glenn Dowling in another of Holy’s texts. (Dowling has chronicled history from a female point of view alongside Ferrato for almost 50 years.) And it is undoubtedly the photographs of overt female pleasure in Holy that will unsettle many readers more than those depicting women’s pain. Female pleasure is something we are unaccustomed to seeing. It symbolises women in control of their bodies and their experiences within them. “Love & Lust destroyed my career,” reflects Ferrato, “because people were so shocked. People are so afraid of sex, and women becoming empowered in that way.”

Within Holy, amid images of love, sex, pain, joy, illness, birth and death, sits a portrait of author Margaret Atwood, taken in 1986 [below]. A light, if that is what it is, emanates out behind the curls that softly fall around her knowing expression, giving the impression of a halo. Ferrato shot the portrait a year after the author published The Handmaid’s Tale: a dystopian novel that describes a patriarchal, quasi-Christian, totalitarian military state in which women have no rights and the ruling class of men forcibly impregnate those who remain fertile.

All images © Donna Ferrato.

Atwood has famously asserted that the amount of invention within the novel is almost nil. “It’s logical, logical. There is not a single detail in the book that does not have a corresponding reality, either in contemporary conditions or historical fact,” she said in an interview published in Vogue in January 1986. As she wrote the novel, the US was four years into the conservative presidency of Ronald Reagan: a man who had won the election on an anti-feminist agenda, and one that courted the electoral potential of the emergence and expansion of the conservative Christian Right, who like Reagan were committed to reversing women’s gains in the 60s and 70s, and denouncing homosexuality, abortion, and the Equal Rights Amendment of 1972. The book resonated with Ferrato then and for her, and many others, gained renewed significance in the Trump and post-Trump world. Holy is a “handmaid’s book” says the photographer, referring to the women’s rights protesters who donned the blood-red capes and white bonnets of the handmaids described in Atwood’s novel throughout Trump’s presidency, emerging en masse ahead of the confirmation of Kavanaugh. They remained an iconic reminder of women’s power and resistance throughout an administration in which the previously unthinkable no longer seemed so far-fetched.

Let us rewind to the siege on the Capitol. The moment in which Trump’s threat to democracy reverberated throughout the world. The next four years will see an administration that has actively committed to improving and protecting women’s rights – headed by a president who helped create the 1994 Violence Against Women Act – lead the country. But the image of Trump’s supporters storming the Capitol building is a warning of what could have been. “We’ve been at it for a long time. And we’re not done,” writes Dowling in Holy. “‘I want women to stand up for their rights and not be submissive to the patriarchy, the man, the priest, the president,” she continues, quoting Ferrato. “The father and the son and the – Holy shit! – we can’t even be in the fucking trinity! Where’s the mother? Women are Holy.” Ferrato’s Holy bears witness to this. It celebrates women in all their powerful complexity. But it is also a reminder that the fight for women’s rights, and the rights of other minority groups, is not over in the US and worldwide, where millions are persecuted and oppressed at the hands of their partners, their communities, and their country’s political regimes. As Dowling continues, “That bright spirit and erotic transgression will, Donna prays, lead another revolution into a future beyond the binary, one of intersectional wholeness. She doesn’t yet know what shape it will take, but she can see the shimmering of its wings.”  

Helplines 

If you have been affected by any of the topics discussed in this article or if you are experiencing domestic abuse, you can seek help and advice from the following organisations:

Domestic Abuse Helpline (in the UK). Freephone, 24-hour helpline: 0808 2000 247.

National Domestic Violence Hotline (in the US). Helpline: 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

Hot Peach Pages. International abuse information in over 115 languages.

Holy is published by powerHouse Books, priced $50

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.

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