Living with the Enemy: Bringing Domestic Abuse into Public View

Donna Ferrato's documentary photography has recorded instances of domestic abuse previously hidden within the home. Source:

True or false: Domestic violence is not a problem in my hometown.

While some might believe this to be a true statement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that each year, 5.3 million women ages 18 and older are victimized by an intimate partner. One in four women faces physical, emotional, or sexual abuse during her lifetime. [1] Domestic abuse is a pervasive problem in this country. Hidden from public view for generations within the privacy of the home, documentation efforts within the last 40 years have cast a spotlight on these crimes.

In 1982, documentary photographer Donna Ferrato caught a glimpse of an abusive relationship on film.

I began to realize how he manipulated her into doing crazy things for his entertainment….Her husband patted her bare skin and told her she could feel confident walking around naked while her daughter’s friends were partying for Halloween….She was the only naked woman at the party in a house of teenagers.[2]

For the next nine years, Ferrato spent over 6,000 hours riding along with police officers as they responded to calls about domestic abuse. After securing permission to photograph, she would document intimate moments of family turmoil. In 1991, her images were compiled into a book, Living with the Enemy.

Shortly thereafter, a New York City women’s shelter approached Ferrato about mounting a benefit exhibition featuring 47 images from the book. With the success of the show, Ferrato was besieged with requests from around the country and the Living with the Enemy exhibition began to travel. From November 1991 to October 2006, art galleries, U.S. embassies, YWCA’s, and college campuses around the world hosted the exhibition. [3]

This documentary photograph by Donna Ferrato records sheds light on domestic violence in the home. Source:

Ferrato’s works capture emotionally charged moments in bold, black and white images. Inspired by this project, Ferrato formed Domestic Abuse Awareness, Inc. as an advocacy non-profit. Describing the tension between her work as an advocate and a documentary photographer, Ferrato explained, “If I chose to put down my camera and stop one man from hitting one woman I’ll be helping just one woman. However, if I get the picture I can help countless more. By taking the picture I am defending the truth.”[4]

Public consciousness about domestic abuse has only surfaced within the last hundred years. In the early 1900s, blues music emerged as one of the first public spaces in which female artists began to discuss violence towards women. According to Angela Davis in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, “The historically omnipresent secrecy and silence regarding male violence is linked to its social construction as a private problem sequestered behind impermeable domestic walls, rather than a social problem deserving political attention.” Blues artists like Bessie Smith and “Ma” Rainey brought such domestic troubles into public light, often through complicated and often satirical lyrics such as the following lines from “Sweet Rough Man:” “He keeps my lips split, my eyes as black as jet/But the way he love me makes me soon forget.” [5]

Despite these blues references to violence within personal relationships and the home, domestic abuse did not surface as a national issue until the 1970s. As second-wave feminists advocated that the personal was the political, women publicly began to share stories of their physical, emotional, and sexual victimization. [6] Through events such as the Take Back the Night protest walk that started in 1975, violence within the home has gained critical, public attention. [7]

Ferrato’s work has provided the intimate, graphic depiction of domestic abuse that early protests lacked. Living with the Enemy is now accessible as a book, traveling exhibition, and section on the Domestic Abuse Awareness, Inc. website. Through Ferrato’s photographic work paired with her first hand account of years documenting domestic abuse, advocates for domestic abuse victims can point to graphic representation of the societal problem hidden within the home. A picture is worth a thousand words, but Ferrato’s work is worth protecting 5.3 million lives.

[1] National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. Costs of Intimate Partner Violence Against Women in the United States. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2003.

[2] Bachevanova, Svetlana. “INTERVIEW : Donna Ferrato.” FotoEvidence, January 24, 2011.

[3] Ferrato, Donna. “Abuse Aware.” Domestic Abuse Awareness, Inc., n.d.

[4] Bachevanova, “INTERVIEW : Donna Ferrato.”

[5] Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Vintage, 1999, 28-32.

[6] Ibid., 25.

[7] “Take Back The Night – History.” Take Back the Night, n.d.

One thought on “Living with the Enemy: Bringing Domestic Abuse into Public View

  1. I think it is very important to bring these stories to light. I wonder if there is a way to create an exhibit that helps show the stories that are not reported. I am really interested in seeing what this photographer does with the stories of the children of these women. Maybe following up on these stories will bring their importance to light.

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