“American Woman” at Cortona on the Move (Interview with Donna Ferrato)

From August 13th until the 17th I attended the Cortona On the Move Photography Festival in Cortona, Italy. Here are some of the photography exhibits and workshops that interested me the most. I was lucky enough to talk with Donna Ferrato about her exhibition “American Woman,” here are some excerpts from that interview, as well as a discussion about her show.

Donna’s show starts with a punch in the face; “Donna’s camera is a machine gun,” they write. This soft spoken, small built, kind woman packs a punch and doesn’t hesitate to let you know what she thinks. She is simultaneously supportive and unforgiving. Work hard and she will cultivate your growth; slack off and she will cut you down to size. This show is the essence of Donna’s personality and growth into the powerhouse she is today.

Mohammad Ali at the Roseland Ballroom. New York City, 1980

At first energized by the woman’s movement and the introduction of the pill, as a powerful tool for women to take the reigns in their own hands for their own sexual freedom and exploration, Donna explores this new landscape in the 1970’s. Her work in the 70’s she develops her obsession around love in America, an obsession that continues to this day, but in true Donna form, she doesn’t shy away from the ugly. As with all fantasies, reality comes crashing in. As Donna and her exhibition develop we see the dark sides of love and swinging in the US with the introduction of her now famous photograph of a woman being beaten by her husband.

Suddenly, Bengt hit Elisabeth. Saddle River, NJ, 1982

That moment. The moment that changed photography forever. The photo no one wanted to see, including the photographer. We see this photo, violence of it, how it is repeated and magnified by the bathroom mirror, and we see the photographer bearing witness, unapologetically, in that same mirror. In this photograph, photojournalists and documentarians are forced to admit that we are our work.

This is the photograph that launched Donna’s second obsession, the degradation of women in society through domestic violence. This progress is shown throughout the exhibition as the audience moves through the battered women’s homes and police intervention that we try to hide throughout the US.

Donna continues to develop her work around love and violence throughout the 80’s and 90’s, eventually coming full circle to the beautiful and intense love festivals we horny Americans hold in our homes and hotels. And again, in true Donna form as she makes another iconic photograph of her at an orgy, we see that she is there; we see that she is present in the photographs she makes.

Self-portrait taken at an orgy. Las Vegas, 1996

American Woman gives us the impression that Donna’s growth has been steady and focused, her obsessions never wavering, her voice never questioned and her commitment never faltering. Donna’s American Woman is not just a show about love, sex and violence in American, it is a show about a photographer coming to understand the complexities of how we love and how we fail to love. Of course Donna is present in her work; Donna is her work.

An interview with Donna — unedited

1.) I noticed that your show portrayed your intellectual development as a photographer from women’s sexual health, to sexual revolutions, to abuse, and back to empowerment. Could you talk a bit about how you put the show to together to convey that so effectively?

It came out of the earliest conversation I had with producer of the festival, Arianna Rinaldo. In trying to explain the American Woman- or the American Donna, my play on the word for woman in Italian- it started to come together. American Woman was a way to show how I think, not only as a photographer, but as a donna thinking about the donnas- one woman for all women. Being a woman has affected how I think as a photographer- looking at the world around me, what I’d like to change, what bothers me. This is how I’ve viewed the world through my camera since I started shooting in the 1970s, but is especially potent as I look at American society right now, during the Trump presidency.

I’d encourage viewers to read all the captions and text. Claudia Dowling, who I worked beside for decades at LIFE magazine, listened to my ideas and wrote the show’s wall text in a forceful, powerful way that represents my work perfectly and helps my voice come alive. The text, true to life, makes me sound like an assassin- I enter people’s lives with my camera, my weapon, I shoot, and I don’t leave until I get what I came for.

2.) In addition to the larger photography show, you have a number of video installations ranging from the editorial documentaries to the more personal work you created, my favorite of which centered around your father. Could you talk a bit about how the videos inform the photography and visa versa?

There are three videos being shown at Cortona On The Move. One, “Behind Closed Doors,” presents my professional persona- a photographer who has chronicled domestic violence over the past 35 years, especially as it relates to Elisabeth. Elisabeth was the woman who forced me to confront the tragic ugliness of a woman living on the surface a beautiful life, but was being tortured in private by her husband. This experience opened my eyes to the shelter system for battered women, police involvement with domestic abuse, the affect on children who witness abuse in their homes, etc. It all stemmed from my initial relationship with Elisabeth, and that relationship is what the TIME piece resurrected in 2014 as we began filming together and what the final product focused on.

The second film is “Lover’s Anonymous,” which is a collection of photographs of swingers. Photographing physical love was my escape, my break from photographing the physical violence of domestic abuse.

The third film, “Road Trip USA,” is incredibly personal. In it I’m naked (metaphorically speaking) in my relationship with my father. My father, PJ, was incredibly influential on my life in all aspects. He was a surgeon and a photographer. He wasn’t a photographer to make money- photography turned on his senses so he photographed everything around him. He was a force for me mentally and visually because he never tried to tell me not to do something. I always felt I could do whatever I wanted to do because of how he raised me and how he lived his own life, without regrets. He was driven and passionate to do all kinds of things that were unconventional, even unacceptable. The film may be hard to look at because I’ve noticed that pain can be easier for some to handle than normal people being naked and free- instead of prostitutes, swingers, “others.”

3.) You also held a 2-day version of your erotic eye workshop. Did the development and curation of your show effect that at all? How did holding an exhibit effect that workshop (if at all)?

The reason it was wonderful to have the exhibit up during the workshop is that I could take the participants around the exhibit and tell stories behind the photos. It’s more impactful than showing pictures on a screen. Normally I don’t like to show my work during workshops- I hope that people who sign up are already familiar with it and I would rather spend the limited time figuring out the best way to move forward with each student’s work. The assignment at EE Cortona was for participants to go out on the streets to find eroticism, but also to involve themselves in the photographs. I saw how they struggled with that assignment (full disclosure, I participated in this workshop). And it led to an incredible session on the last day where we photographed a pregnant woman nude outside, experimentally. The “honey session,” as the subject and one of the photographers, Annalisa, calls it. It showed how I make many of the photos you see in the exhibition- I don’t wait for things to happen. I was very frustrated with the students and the work they made, except for the winner of my book (who received it for creating the best photograph of the workshop). Fabio Assirelli made a photograph of a nude woman pounding on a large church door- the image was strong visually and strong conceptually, it had a political undercurrent (Full disclosure again, that woman was me). So I would say yes, the exhibition did have an effect on how I taught the workshop.

Winning photo by Fabio Assirelli