University of Illinois - Chicago
In the early 1980s, a young photographer named Donna Ferrato was beginning a project on polyamorous couples in New York City. Ferrato was photographing a couple in their home one evening when the husband became angry with his wife and began to scream at her, holding her up against the bathroom sink and striking her multiple times. Ferrato began snapping photos, believing it would stop him. It did not. In a Time Magazine piece in 2012, Ferrato notes, “I took the picture because without it I knew no one would ever believe it happened” (Sun 2012). For Ferrato, this set of images would become the first of thousands in which she documented the lives of domestic violence victims and perpetrators. In these photos, Ferrato is very clearly in a situation. Ferrato is visible in the mirror, both in the center and background of the scene. In the second photograph, she appears between the violent scene and the reflection of the violent scene, her own image spliced by the corner of the mirror.
Click here to see Ferrato's images.
That Ferrato can photograph the violence and not be victim to it is important to the story. That she uses a visual image to document physical abuse is important for the analysis of domestic violence given to us. It is also important that Ferrato thinks to snap these photos at all, because she finds domestic violence both abnormal and urgent. Ferrato tells us a story that centers physical violence, the reality of which is buried behind the mundane setting of (eerily reflective) suburban bathrooms. This story could be told many other ways – psychological abuse documented with trauma checklists, hospital intake forms documenting pregnancy coercion, narrative accounts of women escaping abusive homes. Ferrato’s instrument of story-telling (the camera) and her place in the image (centered in the terrifying scene, but not immediately subject to harm) are important for the story that ends up being told. It also matters that domestic violence survivors have historically been robbed of credible witness status and so this indisputable, photographic evidence is the only kind deemed worthy. We need Ferrato present to make this a legitimate story at all, since domestic violence must be filtered through various kinds of ‘experts’ in order to be ‘real.’ The clear cleavages here between the knower, the context, and the subjects provide insights into the violent social structures that underlie our social inquiries.
"To observe and document this social phenomenon – hidden beneath ideological layers of masculinity and the private family – Ferrato unavoidably finds herself between the reality and its representation, literally at the nexus between the subjects and their mirror images."
Feminist standpoint theory, then, allows us to exploit the disjunctures inherent in the research situation in order to develop a fuller ontological account, forcing us to acknowledge what is not immediately present but there nonetheless (Harding 1998). This means that we must consider Ferrato’s place within the scene, her methods of documentation, and the representation rendered. Is it possible that new aspects of social structure become visible to us when we follow Ferrato’s fractured and doubled image? Indeed, what the photograph captures so profoundly is the silencing power of male violence and the necessity of expert translation to make violence against women real and legitimate. While Ferrato uses her camera to bring something hidden into view, she cannot get herself out of the scene. It is her presence in the photographs that makes the images so jarring. The mirror – the quintessential technology of reflexivity – is embedded into the photo itself, capturing the observer. Here, Ferrato’s image forces us to acknowledge the power of the expert witness in the structure of male violence. Ferrato’s image animates the scene by intruding and reminding us that she usually is not there. Still, she must be there if we are to believe this happened, because victims are non-credible witnesses. This structural reality – the silencing power of male violence – can only be grasped by reading the photo and Ferrato’s spliced image alongside the flesh and blood referents of the violent scene.
Ferrato captures a disturbing, visceral moment of violence – she takes a picture of patriarchy. But it is not the violence itself that makes patriarchy so patriarchal – it is the construction of women as irrational, non-credible witnesses to their experiences. The photograph itself lends visual “proof,” authority, a translation from private to public. Social actors had to seize this representation, the disjuncture between the ideology of hetero-masculinity and its violent reality, and use it to enact structural change. Ferrato’s photos circulated in popular magazines, newspapers, even Congress. This representational project acted on the object, but only when its terms were activated in a collective way. The contradictions that Ferrato’s photo brings into view gives us insight to some of the mechanisms of male violence, which depend for their success on epistemic inequalities.
Linking feminist theory’s epistemological project with a critical realist commitment to strong ontological claims brings us closer to a realist mode of explanation that attends to epistemic power. Our research objects may be shrouded in a way that shapes both our own efforts and the efforts of our subjects, such that an analysis of contradiction and epistemic violence are part of understanding both ontology and the process of knowledge production. In many projects of inquiry, the investigator must pull a social phenomenon out of its existing “landscape of meaning” (Reed 2011) and transform its terms in the social sphere in order to make us “see” it at all. These projects of epistemic transformation do not simply shift our knowledge communities, but they also transform the phenomena themselves.
* An earlier version of this essay appeared on the Critical Realism Blog and the article version is forthcoming in Sociological Theory.
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Sun, Feifi. June 27, 2012. “I Am Unbeatable: Donna Ferrato’s Commitment to Abused Women.” http://time.com/3789753/i-am-unbeatable-donna-ferratos-commitment-to-abused-women/