Donna Ferrato – HOLY

Review by madhu joseph-john

These days the ‘Me Too’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’ movements consume our attention.  Deservedly so.  Yet, consider the fact that domestic violence, gender inequality, sex trafficking, rape, incest and misogyny, all travesties predominantly or wholly victimizing the female, mind you, have been around much longer.  Here in the USA, ostensibly the most advanced country on earth, one in four women experience physical violence by their spouses/partners and one in three females experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime.  And surely, there is no reason to believe that this madness is any less prevalent in other “civilized” countries. 

Donna Ferrato first came to our attention in the early 1990s when TIME included her image of domestic violence in their 100 most influential photographs list.  She had taken these series of graphic images of a married couple in 1982, while on assignment for a swinger’s magazine and had included them in her own book Living with the Enemy (1991).  In her 2005 book Love and Lust she continued to illustrate the vagaries and diverse manifestations of human relationships.  And now in 2021 Ferrato gleans some 40 years of her work in HOLY, a in-your-face, no-holds-barred, militant and angry broadside against patriarchy and its effects on our societies.

The images in HOLY vary in scope and intensity, veering from scenes of undisguised violence and despair to displays of hope and revival.  The tableaux range from family courts, jails, homeless shelters, emergency rooms, depictions of outright physical violence, sex workers in mean streets and the aftermath of rape to ecstatic lovers, child birth, supportive fathers and husbands and the mysterious connectivity between women and their children.  The male gaze is evident on occasion but of course, the female gaze predominates.  The vast majority of these images are located in the USA, with sprinkles of Africa, South America and the Middle East – all indications of the universality of violence against women.

Ferrato’s style is stark, open, guileless. A point and shoot monochrome aesthetic that is unsettling, that makes you avert your eyes momentarily, only to pull you back even as you are fearful of what you might see.  Initially, the pace and sequencing appear to be disorderly and random.  On repeated viewing however, you will see that there is a method to her madness:  quiet scenes of mother-child communion and self portraits are abruptly followed by paroxysms of violence which in turn are succeeded by the calm of reconciliation or resignation and rarely by retribution. There is none of the technicolor seediness of Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, the brooding menace of Larry Clark’s Tulsa or the subtle theatrical feminism evident in Cindy Sherman’s work.  Let’s say more Sam Peckinpah than Hitchcock. 

Every image in HOLY has a narrative caption in (presumably) Ferrato’s ungainly, almost child-like scrawl.  This is one photobook where the image and caption combination  enhances the net impact of the author’s message.

Many images in HOLY will be forever entrenched in your mind.  The most chilling picture in my estimation is the one of the eight year old boy, Diamond, in Minneapolis, pointing his accusatory finger at his father as he is being led away by police. The quote attributed to Diamond: “I hate you for hitting my mother. Don’t come back to this house,” unquestionably amplifies the impact of this striking image.

The primary perpetrator of gender inequality and violence in Ferrato’s view appears to be the Christian church.  “The church is a thief, stealing woman’s autonomy,” she writes, the proof being “the designation of power in the Holy Trinity.”  Her proposed alternative to the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost is Mother, Daughter and the Other.  After all, “WOMEN (are) Mothers of God, of Christ, of the whole bloody human race.”  The second heavy in this narrative is the Republican party which she accuses of draining support for women’s health and needs and constitutional rights.  Presciently, she warns us of “Roe v Wade crumbling in our hands.”  And who else can one blame for the fact that in 2023 it will be 100 years since the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced and that it is highly unlikely it will be ratified into the American Constitution anytime soon?

HOLY in essence is a loud, heartfelt and persuasive exhortation directed at women to organize, mobilize, to “jump out of the box,” to “see the light,” to hold abusers accountable, to break the cycle of violence and to be “an agent of change.”  For the male, it may serve as a reprimand and /or a wake-up call.  That patriarchy is the root cause of these perversions is implied though never stated outright in this Ferrato polemic.  HOLY obligates me to ruminate on the fact that misogyny, (and racism for that matter) resides in all of us to some degree or other, irrespective of race, color, nationality, political persuasion (including bleeding heart liberals like me) and even gender (every movement has its Phyllis Schlaflys and Norma McCorveys).  

Obviously, each of us will likely have our own different reactions to this photobook.  The only certainty is that HOLY will engage, provoke and ultimately haunt all of us.  Guaranteed.


Donna Ferrato, HOLY

Design, preamble, photographs, drawings and captions: Donna Ferrato, b. Waltham, MA and resides NYC, NY

Foreword:  Claudia Glenn Dowling

Text: English

Publisher: powerHouse Books, Brooklyn, NY, First Edition, copyright 2020

Hardcover, 8” x 10.5,” 176 pages, printed by EBS Editionale Bortolazzi, Verona, Italy, ISBN:  978-1-57687-910-8

Duotone prepress: Thomas Palmer


Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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