One prominent theme present within the works of feminist photographic artist Donna Ferrato is that of motherhood. Motherhood is a state adjacent to womanhood, and just like womanhood, this state is strained by the patriarchy. Motherhood is also diverse and imaginative; it can transcend patriarchal and heteronoromative boundaries and become a unique experience for mother and child. The relationship between mother and child is both absent and present in the collection displayed here, showing the full spectrum of love and loss that motherhood encapsulates. Ferrato portrays motherhood as being radical, loving, exhausting, and freeing all at once, for both mother and child. This particular collection of photos spans from the 1986, within the iconic second-wave feminist movement, to 2017, representing the fierce third-wave. Throughout the passage of time and shifts in the feminist movement, one message remains: motherhood or the lack thereof plays a pivotal role in feminism, and can truly display the freedom of womanhood despite the constraints of both systemic and intimate male violence.
This photograph, taken in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1994, shows a lesbian couple kissing while one woman holds their child. The composition of the photo presents the couple centered in the foreground, distanced from the background. This distancing evokes a narrative of the couple striking out on their own to create their family, away from homophobia and from institutions or unsupportive families. The photograph’s title juxtaposes the holiness of the Virgin Mary—a figure often used to symbolize the Christian idea of feminine “purity” devoid of sin—with a scene of queer love, which is often depicted within Christianity as impure, sinful, devious.
Ferrato captures 11-year-old Carla Herrera hugging two pictures close to her chest. One photo is of her mother, Carmen Climaco, and the other is of her family before separation. She looks directly at us with teary eyes as she mourns for her mother, commanding the viewer’s attention. Carmen was sentenced to 30 years in prison for a miscarriage ruled as a homicide, ultimately forcing her to leave her five children without a mother. El Salvador is a predominantly Catholic country notorious for its conservative politics criminalizing pregnant people. It holds one of the most restrictive abortion laws since 1998, banning access to abortion despite any circumstances. Doctors are legally bound to report any suspected abortion to the authorities, directly contradicting the doctor’s duty to respect their patient’s medical confidentiality.
Immaculate Conception. 1994
Pro Birth Nation, El Salvador. 2006
Annual Brides March, Bronx, New York City, NY. 2017
In the photograph in the Bronx in 2017, a mother named Rosana is seen at the Annual Brides March wielding a sign that says “Mommy will never give up.” Rosana fought the patriarchal court systems which allowed her daughter to be placed in the custody of her abuser, until the legal age of emancipation. The Brides March was established in 2001 on the anniversary of the murder of Gladys Ricart, a Dominican woman from Washington Heights who was killed by an abusive former boyfriend. It has now become an annual tradition for women to walk in white wedding gowns to draw attention to domestic violence, particularly in the Latina community in New York City.
Surrogate Womb, 1994
In this photograph, Ferrato offers a feminist perspective into the controversial practice of gestational surrogacy with multiple layers of visual language: the genetic difference between the puppies and the woman figure, the cage and lighting that split the photograph into halves, and the dueling gaze that indicates contrasting attitudes between the puppies and the woman. While the absence of the puppies’ biological parents illustrates a shift in parental responsibility, the female subject is simply walking out of frame, implying both a confrontation and an escape. This act of abandoning the assigned obligation unties the female identity from the motherhood that traditionally defines it.
“Women Against Abuse.” 1985
Ferrato took this photograph of a mother and child while documenting the stories of women in Domestic Abuse Shelters. The girl holds her arm in a pose reminiscent of Rosie the Riveter. While this stance alludes to women’s empowerment, her fist also obscures half of her mother’s face, mirroring a black eye in the aftermath of assault. Their smiles and the camera’s tilt upwards invites hope for the future while also indicating the intergenerational cycle of
domestic abuse. Ferrato portrays healing and agency for survivors of abuse. She incorporates this family’s narrative into a larger activist project, contextualizing the politics of gendered violence through lived experiences and calling viewers to action.