The Ugly Truth : Quest to Photograph Love Turns Into Passion to Save Women


Lisa was a sexy, disco-dancing mother of five.

Garth was a lanky, big-money engineer.

They represented the "perfect couple" to a wide-eyed photographer shooting the glamorous life in her native America for a Japanese magazine.

But then Donna Ferrato caught the glamorous husband beating the glamorous wife one spring night at their eight-room home outside New York City. Ferrato crouched, snapped her trusty Leica and then tried unsuccessfully to stop the heavy, left-handed blows.

Ferrato, now 45, will never forget how her quest to document love 13 years ago broke her heart and changed her focus from romance to abuse. She hopes America won't forget, either.

The O.J. Simpson saga has helped her cause. Ferrato's rare black-and-white images on spousal abuse are hot, circulating on television, in magazines and in newspapers. One of her photos appeared on the July 4 Time magazine cover; her photo book "Living With the Enemy" (Aperture, 1991) is beginning its third printing; and she gets media calls for her own portrait. But this New Yorker would gladly decline the attention in favor of even more publicity for her obsession: "wife beating," as she calls it.

"The emphasis is finally focusing on the men who do this," Ferrato says in her girlish, staccato voice.

Ironically, she couldn't find a soul to publish her cold, violent pictures back in the early '80s. Nonetheless, while accepting other assignments to pay the bills, she made documenting domestic violence her life.

"The world has finally caught up with what Donna has been doing for more than 10 years," says Peter Howe, former director of photography for Life magazine.

Ferrato is so gung-ho about the issue that she pairs her journalism with activism: She has spent at least 4,000 hours chronicling the effects of spousal abuse. She lectures passionately on the topic. And in 1991, she opened the nonprofit Domestic Abuse Awareness Project in a two-cubicle flat in Manhattan. The project floats two 50-photograph exhibitions around the country to raise funds for battered-women's shelters.

After 13 years of covering the issue, "How could I not have opinions?" Ferrato asks.

The night of the beating, Ferrato took one last picture of Lisa, who was crying on her knees in the couple's disco room. Months later, she found Lisa with a black eye. A year after the beating, Ferrato used the 20 beating pictures to persuade Lisa to carry through with her divorce from Garth, who was never arrested or charged with trying to hurt Lisa. (Ferrato used pseudonyms for the couple and is still selective about what she will reveal about them).

Ferrato never set out to photograph a man actually hitting a woman: "I didn't realize how dangerous it was," she says. Today, when she's on the spousal-abuse beat, she sticks with police, jails and shelters.

Some might shun Ferrato for stepping over the line of so-called objectivity, but her cold point of view has nonetheless graced Life, the New York Times Magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine and others. She's taken home several honors, including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. And museum directors, photographic arts authorities and journalists agree Ferrato is one of the best.

"One of the most interesting things about Donna is the way her photography and activism are hand in glove," Howe says. " . . . I would employ Donna because I want Donna Ferrato photographs."

Donna Ferrato photographs are stark and sober views of black eyes, bruises, scars, swelling and fresh blood. The subjects come with names, faces and a lasting impression. The images are known to trigger a deep breath, boil blood and evoke tears. "Her pictures really aren't single images," says another former editor, "they're short stories."

Ferrato has covered other assignments, from sex to Somalia. But when "Living With the Enemy" was published it solidified her reputation as the nation's resident photographer of spousal-abuse issues. It's a collection that includes the mass-media debut of Lisa and Garth, other battered women, their children and the men who destroy them.

Ferrato was exposed to photography early, growing up in a wealthy doctors' neighborhood called "pill hill" in the Rust Belt town of Lorain, Ohio. Her father, an M.D., had a lot of love for his girl and two boys. There was a baseball diamond out back, a movie room inside, and the ever-present click of his own Leica. "I hated being posed," Ferrato says.

And so Ferrato brings a fly-on-the-wall style to her assignments. "She's much happier sleeping on a subject's couch than in a high-priced hotel room," Howe says.

She's 5-feet-4 and weighs 110 pounds. On assignments she wears black boots, blue jeans and a white T-shirt. She's discovered that red ("for the heart") and green ("for the mind") electrical tape on her $2,500 Leica puts subjects at ease: Where other photojournalists carry telephoto lenses that resemble heavy artillery, Ferrato's quiet little 35-mm camera looks like a broken toy.

Ferrato sometimes spends months with her subjects, and that's how she sees what many journalists don't: Reality.

"I don't want to be kept in the living room," she says, and then whispers, "I want to go into people's private places."

Ferrato's persuasive powers are legendary. Aliza Sherman, 28, happily quit her job as a public-relations liaison for the likes of Def Leppard, Bruce Hornsby and Metallica to take over as director of Ferrato's nonprofit group. Ferrato talks her way into assignments and into the ugly truths of people's day-to-day lives. "She can talk her way into almost anywhere," Howe says.

Ferrato says her life's experiences have had a profound influence on her photography. She was raped as an arts-college student. Later, she nearly starved in Paris, but was saved by the kindness of suitors, bakers and people on the street. She was married for four years. She has a 12-year-old daughter. And after Ferrato started gaining fame for spousal-abuse photos, her own father revealed that her grandmother was beaten regularly by her late grandfather. "It's almost like every woman's experience," she says.

"I've been raised to nurture people and to take care of people," Ferrato says. "And that's what I do most--I try to help people with my work."

Her work has gained status as a counterpart to literature and art. Ann Jones, who wrote "Women Who Kill" (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1980), a book about wives who murder in self defense, is a loyal fan. Ferrato's work was featured in 1993's Academy Award-winning documentary "Defending Our Lives," on the same topic. Her prints have even been lifted by students and up-and-coming artists. Ferrato is taking a woman to court for using copyright images in collages that were featured at a New York museum.

Ferrato is still trying to find love. She says her time around battered women hasn't darkened her outlook. "That's what keeps me strong--spending time looking for love," she says.

At the same time, she can't get Lisa and Garth off her mind. She still visits Lisa--now a physical therapist who sometimes works with battered women. Garth remarried. He visits Lisa and the kids every so often and acts as though the violence never happened, Ferrato says. She would like to make a film documentary about the couple.

"There's a lot that I have not said about Garth that will probably come out someday," Ferrato says. " . . . The story's still not over."

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