Donna Ferrato: Living with the Enemy

Donna Ferrato had been staying with a couple, Garth and Lisa, in New Jersey during the 1980s in order to photograph their sexual life. It was during this stay that the project Living with the Enemy began, as one day whilst in the bathroom, Garth attacked Lisa. Lisa’s screams brought Donna running, camera in hand. This initial photograph is troubling, as the Donna is visible in the mirror with the camera to her face, taking the shot. The ‘co-spectatorship.’[1] between the attacker and the photographer can be widened to include the viewer. Although we may not agree with Ferrato’s decision to take the photo instead of intervening, we value the image for its ability to shock, and it is this value that Ferrato was aware of when taking the images.

Lisa and Garth

The argument was over Lisa hiding Garth’s cocaine pipe

We are a society that craves such images that capture the moment and not the aftermath. For instance, images like the Falling Man by Robert Capa. When comparing the pictures of dead soldiers, to the image of the moment of death that Capa captures, the latter carries greater meaning. There was a sense of disappointment when the integrity of the image came into question.

Ferato states that her ‘first instinct was I gotta get that picture, because if I get that picture […] maybe he’ll stop’[2] She believed that by being caught on camera it would somehow make the situation more real for him. It did not have the required effect on Garth, but for the average viewer the reality of the image is startling, and it is true that the images of after the attack carry a little less meaning than the first. It is the rarity of such an image that makes it impressive. Ferrato was initially in Garth and Lisa’s home on a voyeuristic basis, by taking the picture instead of helping Lisa, it can be argued that her role did not change during the attack. Her reflection even shows her kneeling down in order to get the best shot. Sensationalizing the attack by making the viewer feel small and helpless.


From that day on Ferrato decided to photograph domestic abuse in order to use the images as a tool for activism. She would turn up with police on call outs, entering family homes in a moment of turmoil. Remnants of normal family life scattered everywhere. With the television still on, the image frozen by the camera juxtaposing the emotions in the living room, a portal to a safer, happier world. It is domestic scenes like this that cause us to feel like an intruder when viewing Living with the Enemy, and we are. We see the viewpoint of Ferrato, who was not invited to the house, who was not called for like the police. In fact the only reason she is there, is to take the picture, she is not there to give any assistance. But can these images be of assistance in the long term? Ferrato herself has stated that ‘if I chose to put down my camera and stop one man from hitting one woman, I’d be helping just one woman. However, if I got the picture, I could help countless more.’[3] This brings into question the power of the image. By taking them she has captured scenes that would have remained behind doors. In the beginning of the 90s Ferrato founded the Domestic Abuse Awareness Project in order to raise money for women who were victims of domestic abuse, putting on exhibitions of her work to spread the word.

The image of a young boy shouting at his father is all about noise, supporting Ferrato’s statement that ‘Photography is not just visual, it’s all five senses at play. It’s about the smell, it’s about the sound, it’s about touch'[4] The child’s aggressive pose, causes the Father to turn his head away from the pointing and the shouting, or is it the gaze of the camera? There is a lot of movement in the photo, and several subjects. Yet it is the boy and the father that draw the gaze and hold it. More often than not when Ferrato arrived at a domestic abuse call out, there was a child, crying, screaming, scared and angry. And it was often these characters that become the focus of the image. Diamond’s image is a rare depiction of David versus Goliath, finger pointing defiantly, once again Ferrato has arrived at just the right time, closing the shutter just as the shot is fired.

Woman with Policeman

The mirrored image is a running theme, this time showing the concerned face of the police officer. Yet the woman’s pose, hands up, suggests that she is expecting the officer to be violent, after all he is a man and when placed next to the other images in the collection we come to expect the violent male figure. Her eyes are not at the camera or at the officer, but to the side, trying to dislocate herself from the situation. The wallpaper is loud and is continued on by the mirror, making it a very enclosed space, the vertical lines emphasising how her home has become her prison.

Ferrato’s images also question the actions of the police, if she truly believed they were helping the women she would not need to be there to take pictures to strengthen the pleas of these women, inviting intervention from the public.

The interest in Living with the Enemy gained a boost in America in the 1990s during the trial of O.J. Simpson, which became the most publicised case in the history of American law. Suddenly the subject of domestic abuse was brought into the spotlight, along with Ferrato’s images. The desire to see into the personal lives of others led to Ferratos’s images becoming a window to see where others had gone wrong, viewers could sit back and thank God it wasn’t them. Ferrato took the images as ‘a means of making “real” (or “more real”) matters that the privileged and the merely safe might prefer to ignore.’[5] Maybe we do need to see in order to believe, or maybe we need to see in order to feel thankful. When looking at these images we do feel sympathy for the women, but for those of us who have not experienced what they have, shock will always be accompanied by a sense of gratitude.

Angry Man

Ferrato was also interested in capturing the men, tying back to her initial desire for the images to act as a mirror for the men to see what they were doing. Here the desk acts as a barrier between the camera and the angry male subject, emphasising the threat he poses. With his top off his masculinity is heightened. His tense and expressive hand, combined with the angry appearance on his face act as a stark comparison to the dejected pose in the second image. Yet the pose of the police officer stays relatively static, making the shift in his behaviour from anger to regret, appear erratic.

By releasing some of the images still in film form Ferrato reminds us of the cameras presence, the image doesn’t just exist but was taken, we have the film as incriminating evidence. Quite apt for a police station. By placing these images in a sequence there is an essence of the kinetoscope, highlighting the cyclic nature of domestic abuse that Ferrato Woman with Gunhopes her images will break.  All of the images in Living with the Enemy are in monochrome, which creates a layer between our eye and the reality that Ferrato captured, lending an element of privacy to those pictured.

Although many of her photographs are of women being attacked, the project as a whole can be seen as an attempt to show women in the same situation a pathway to empowerment. The now clichéd concept of the journey is evident in her project, we see women leaving their abusive homes, possessions in hand they become more than just the ‘powerless, reduced to their powerlessness.’[6] that we have seen in the previous images.

The justification of the existence of the graphic images in Living with the Enemy, is based on the concept that !‘the shock of such pictures cannot fail to unite people of good will.’[7] It does unite such people in agreement that such acts of violence should stop. But in today’s society, and even at the time when the images were taken, our society has been one that is saturated with images, each one attempting to be more shocking than the last, and leading to photographic activism losing its power. The images appal us for a while, they may even resonate with us for a couple of days, but there is always another image waiting in line to vie for our attention.

[1] Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, (New York: Picador, 2003) p.42

[2] Nick Fitzhugh, Conflict, online video recording, The Atlantic, 28 December 2015 <; [accessed 12 January 2016]

[3] ‘The Bystanders: photographers who didn’t step in to help – in pictures’, The Guardian (28 July 2012) <; [accessed 14 January 2016]

[4] Fitzhugh, Conflict <;

[5] Sontag, Regarding, p.4

[6] Sontag, Regarding, p.57

[7] Sontag, Regarding, p.3



Fitzhugh,Nick, Conflict, online video recording, The Atlantic, 28 December 2015 <; [accessed 12 January 2016]

Ludtke, Melissa, ‘Interview with Photographer Donna Ferrato (1998)’, American Suburb X <; [accessed 11 January 2016]

The Guardian ‘The Bystanders: photographers who didn’t step in to help – in pictures’, The Guardian (28 July 2012)<; [accessed 14 January 2016]

Smith, C. Zoe & Whitney, Susan, ‘Living with the enemy’, Visual Communication Quarterly, 9 (2002), 4-14

Sontag, Susan, Regarding the Pain of Others, (New York: Picador, 2003)




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