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As I sat down to begin writing my impressions of photographer Donna Ferrato’s new book, “Holy” (PowerHouse Books, 2021), I didn’t get very far. To be sure, it was maybe the third or fourth time I had paged through the book’s 150-plus pages, a career-spanning look at Ferrato’s fierce work on the need for women’s empowerment in the face of so much of the exact opposite. But this time, I stopped flat on Page 32, on a photo of Ferrato’s mother and father.
In the far left in the photo’s frame, Ferrato’s mother is staring straight ahead, looking off into the distance as Ferrato’s father, on the right, is speaking, seemingly sternly, his mouth slightly agape. I think the best way to describe what seems to be taking place is to take a page from our current lexicon and posit that he is “mansplaining.” Ferrato’s mother, like so many women over so many years, is listening, bearing it. Ferrato’s description of the photo is as follows:
“Mom and Dad. Virginia 1987. Mom had backbone. She didn’t fall apart when he did. She stayed strong for him and her kids. Although he was wearing down her self esteem she held on to her soul, her nature to care for others. To be there.”
In more ways than one, that photo reminds me of my own mother and even my wife and my sisters. Really, it’s kind of a universal photo of what I can only imagine is the experience of women around the world. In the face of relentless and pounding criticism and lack of opportunity and even basic respect, what is left? “Although he was wearing down her self esteem she held on to her soul …”
To put it another way, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”
At the risk of woefully simplifying the message of “Holy,” I would say that one of the chief ideas of the book is about persistence in the face of what seem like insurmountable odds. It highlights not only Ferrato’s resilience throughout her life, but also the resilience of so many women who have faced, and continue to face, similar obstacles to their progress.
I am a big believer in letting the words and the work of photographers speak for themselves. I would say that is even more the case for Ferrato’s book. As a man who has not had to endure the kinds of systemic discrimination faced by women like my mother, wife, sisters and friends, I just don’t have the tools to be able to do that. I am grateful, however, for the words and work of Ferrato — they at least help to nudge me in the right direction.
It seems overly simple to acknowledge the following words of Ferrato’s, but time and time again, I am reminded that what we want as human beings can often be broken down into what she says:
“Years after I am pushing daisies, with a little bit of luck my photographs will have spread like seeds in the fields of discourse and communication.
“Maybe five years or fifty years from now, people will hold Holy in their hands and exhale a sigh, seeing it wasn’t complicated what women wanted. To be heard. To be free to love and live as they choose. What’s so hard about that?
“My hope for future generations is that they will be appreciated and admired. That everyone will have the right to live and breathe freely without fear. I hope they will be proud of their fighting foremothers, daughters, and others who used their lives to pursue liberty, justice, and pleasure for all.”
I am here to tell you that Ferrato’s photos have the ability to sear into the recesses of your mind. And by doing so, they give a lasting voice to the stories of the people she has photographed. In short, they are indeed heard. I’ll close with a personal story that I believe drives this very point home.
When I was studying photojournalism as a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism, there were many photos arrayed on the walls of the school’s Lee Hills Hall, where most of my formative classes took place. One of the only photos that I remember vividly showed a young boy angrily pointing a finger at his father as he was being removed from the house by police. Well, that very photograph appears on Pages 152-153 of “Holy.” Ferrato’s description of the photo is as follows:
“Diamond. Minneapolis, MN 1987.
“The eight-year old boy called 9-1-1 to report his father. When the police arrived to arrest his father, Diamond said, ‘I hate you for hitting my mother. Don’t come back to this house.’ This photograph was ubiquitous on NYC subways and was awarded one of the most influential 50 photographs. Life magazine 1987.”
In the intervening years, I’ve also become strongly aware of much more of Ferrato’s work, including her work on domestic abuse. But that photo I first saw on the wall of the photo lab in Lee Hills Hall has stayed in my mind for more than 20 years. That is the kind of testament that Ferrato’s “Holy” bears, and will bear, for many years.
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