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Donna Ferrato was one of the first feminist photographers to document violence against women. Working over several decades, Ferrato showcases how a woman’s experience with violence can evolve from one of powerlessness to one of power. With these photos, moving from left to right, we watch the narrative change. Initially, the story is one of internalized abuse. We see Pam, Ernie, Brianna, and an unnamed woman stuck in a cycle of abuse, unable to escape. Next, we see the cycle broken, as women fight back and take their lives into their own hands. We see a woman learning self defense and another breaking into her rightful home. We see a societal shift, one that acknowledges that men are not contributing to women’s safety or wellbeing. Women are perhaps most powerful without a man beside them. 


In addition, Ferrato wants viewers to accept some responsibility for the abuse depicted in these images. She uses stories about domestic abuse and sexual assault as an activist tool to prompt viewers to seek out help to escape and correct abusive behavior that is otherwise perpetuated. Viewers are forced to confront their own struggles with violence. With this confrontation, Ferrato is working to break cycles of abusive behavior. Although Ferrato documents progress in legal and cultural attitudes regarding domestic violence, this call to action still rings true today.

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Pam with a Portrait of Abuser, Battered Lesbian,
Boulder, Colorado. 1987

In this photograph, Pam is staring directly into the camera while holding her own photograph which depicts her abuser. Adjacent to the photo is a clear view of her wedding ring. Although she is described as a “battered lesbian” she holds the power by looking right at the viewer and showing us her own photograph. The term “battered women” itself comes from the movement against domestic violence, which was started in the 70s. By the 80s, the battered women’s movement was also beginning to include violence in relationships that exist outside of heterosexual marriage. 


In this photograph, the woman is Rosalyn, who experienced domestic violence from her ex-minister husband. After she moved into a shelter with her children, her husband changed the locks on their houses. Since she had fled quickly, taking only a few belongings, she went back for her things and had to break through a window. Later, Rosalyn became an ardent spokeswoman for battered-women’s rights in Pennsylvania. Rosalyn’s experience of once being a victim of domestic violence and later an activist for women’s rights embodies the collective contribution people made in the influential “Battered Women Movement” in the 1980s.


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Breaking Down the Master’s Series II,
Pittsburgh, PA. 1985
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Be aware there are predators everywhere. 2002

This photograph is part of Donna Ferrato’s Holy collection, which focused on everything from the sexual revolution of the 1960s to the more recent #MeToo movement. This particular photograph was taken in 2002 in the lower east side of New York City. It was originally displayed with Donna Ferrato’s writing, “Wolves in sheep’s clothing. Disguised as your boss, your coach, even your holy father.” The original caption highlighted perfectly the major themes of the work: any man can be an abuser, but many times you won’t know until they choose to attack.


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Men Don’t Protect You Anymore, 42nd Street, New York City.  1993

This photograph is of an art installation by Jenny Holzer. Jenny Holzer developed and displayed her truisms, which were short catchy phrases usually involving some universal truth or societal statement. “Men don’t protect you anymore” is one of these truisms, here seen on an abandoned marquee on 42nd street. Holzer often used advertising techniques in the display of her truisms, seen here in her use of the marquee. She also displayed this particular truism on the wrapper of a condom, as well as engraved into a bench.

— Grace

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Ernie and Brianna: When Children Witness Violence. 1984

These children, Ernie and Brianna, witnessed extensive domestic violence at home. This photograph is one within a larger series since Ferrato spent more than a year living with this family, documenting their life, and helping them heal. Ferrato was extremely focused on violence as a learned and replicated behavior, which is why she aimed at using these photographs as an activist tool for educating women and children about the effects of domestic abuse. Children learn to reproduce the violence of their childhoods, but this cycle may be broken by forcing families to confront and correct their behavior. —Emma

This photograph depicts a woman fighting a faceless opponent whose head is obscured by a helmet. It appears to be set in a self-defense class, likely a class put together by a women’s group focusing on violence prevention. Our main subject, the woman learning self defense, appears trapped: her hands are restrained and her fighting partner takes up much more space in the frame than she does, boxing her in. However, her face is visible whereas her partner’s is not, giving her more humanity, allowing viewers to relate to her, and communicating the power that learning these self-defense skills gives her.

— Ben

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Self Defense--Fear Nada, Boston. 1993
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