In the time it will take you to read this blog post, around 50 people in the United States would have been victims of domestic violence. For the longest time, even to the days of our parents, domestic violence was an act which not only went unreported but also simply taken for granted. The apocryphal rule of thumb — whereby a man is allowed to beat his wife so long as the rod used was no thicker than his thumb — was routinely assumed to be part of the British common law.
In 1982, Donna Ferrato was on assignment to photograph swingers for Playboy Japan at New York’s famous sex club, Plato’s Retreat, when she befriended Garth and Lisa, a polyamorous couple from Saddle River, New Jersey. On the surface, they have a successful marriage. However, Ferrato discovered a physically abusive husband who routinely beat his wife. She remembers:
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 said: ‘What are you doing? You are really going to hurt her.’ He threw me down and said: ‘I’m not going to hurt her — she’s my wife. I know what my strength is but I have to teach her that she can’t lie to me.’
The contact sheet shows every frame of the first fight I witnessed between Garth and Lisa. The most important thing on my mind was to take pictures to prove that what I was seeing really happened. Without a photograph there would be no evidence.
“Garth” and “Lisa” were Ferrato’s pseudonyms (their real names were later revealed to be Bengt and Elisabeth). Ferrato approached her editors to publish the images, but they all refused.
For the next decade, Ferrato went around the United States visiting shelters, police stations and hospitals, and documenting the scenes and aftermaths of domestic abuse. These photos, along with that of Bengt and Elizabeth were compiled in her 1991 book Living With the Enemy. The book propelled an oft-neglected topic into a national sensation: she was invited to the White House for a private meeting with Hillary Clinton. In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act. Ferrato’s work was featured on the cover of Time twice, following the Rita Collins murder case in 1993 and on a cover story called “When Violence Hits Home,” published after O.J. Simpson was arrested for the murder of his wife.
“Americans are confronting the ferocious violence that may erupt when love runs awry,” Time wrote then. Donna Ferrato’s photos underlining criminality and brutality inherent in domestic violence suggested otherwise.