I Am Unbeatable: Donna Ferrato’s Commitment to Abused Women

Donna Ferrato
Donna Ferrato
Donna Ferrato has documented domestic violence for more than 30 years. Here, she gives LightBox the backstory behind some of her most harrowing images.

I heard Lisa screaming and things breaking. As soon as I entered the bathroom Garth raised his hand to slap his wife in the face. I took the picture because without it I knew noone would ever believe it happened. Saddle River, N.J., 1982.

In 1982, photographer Donna Ferrato was commissioned by Playboy Japan to document the lives of a polyamorous couple in New Jersey. Though they appeared to have successfully balanced raising a family and owning a home with their open marriage, Ferrato soon discovered—and photographed—a physically abusive husband who routinely beat his wife. The horrific events inspired her to begin documenting domestic violence across the country, and over the last 30 years, Ferrato has visited countless shelters, police stations and hospitals in her search for stories; her seminal book on the topic, Living With the Enemy, was published in 1991.

Donna Ferrato

A 1994 TIME cover story featured images from Living With the Enemy.

Over the past five years, though, Ferrato has refined her topic matter, focusing specifically on those women who have left their abusers in a series called I Am Unbeatable. “I was so upset that many young women were putting up with abuse and romanticizing it,” she says. “I wanted to show how much better life became when the woman left the abuser.” The photographer became especially passionate about highlighting this angle when she saw that singer Rihanna had gotten back together with Chris Brown, an ex-boyfriend who brutally beat her the day before she was scheduled to attend the 2009 Grammy Awards. “It shows the confusion among young women in deciding to leave their abuser,” she says. “It was especially upsetting given how many young fans follow Rihanna’s every move.”

There are plenty of young people in Ferrato’s pictures as well; she realized that speaking to children of victims and incorporating their feelings into the series was just as important as showcasing the victims themselves. Ferrato is currently trying to raise money to turn her series in a book and film, with the hopes of inspiring women to leave their abusive partners. “People need to see a different picture—a picture of how much better these women’s lives are when they aren’t broken down by abuse,” Ferrato says. “And, at the same time, I want to recognize the bravery it takes for women to get away from abusers.”

Donna Ferrato is a photographer and activist based in New York. See more of her work here and support I Am Unbeatable here .

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