If you are interesting in participating in the next ACTIVISM | Domestic Violence 101 workshop, send us an email.
Twenty years ago I lived in battered women’s shelters and rode around with the police to produce Living with the Enemy. Last week, it was time to make way for a new generation of photographers.
I’d convinced a shelter, the Retreat, to let me run with the ball and give my students full access. I warned the photographers in advance to be prepared physically and emotionally. I hinted that the challenges would be enormous – my workshops are workouts.
The photographers would be put to work immediately and had just one week to create images that could actually have an impact. The question was, could I pull it off and shape a group of photographers with undeniable raw talent so they could produce fantastic photos in a week?
Each photographer had a sliver of time to document the complex reality of four women running from certain death. I wanted to push the photographers out of their protective shells and show what it takes to become a sure-footed photographer who knows how to get the best shot by relying on gut instinct. It goes beyond taking pictures. The point of this workshop was not to fixate on great compositions, although that was surely part of the daily discussion. The goal was to create a highly trained visual response team with limited resources. I was determined to show them how valuable and powerful their photographs could be, beyond sitting on websites and portfolio pages.
Three photographers rotated with 24-hour access in the shelter whilst one worked closely with the police department making home visit outreach calls. Two women filmed everything. It quickly became clear that this could be a drama packed reality show about what it takes to be a documentary photographer. (I’d rented a large comfortable house in the woods, which functioned as home base). This was one of the most unique aspects of the workshop.
In no way am I bound-by the classic rules of documentary photography. Nor do I find the didactic Germanic art photography compelling. My workshops teach photographers to take risks. Why can’t photographers feel the love, ruminate on the big picture of life and death in all their messy glory? Light and composition help make timeless images. Yet, if a photographer doesn’t develop a sense of integrity and compassion about what they are doing, if they don’t understand their intentions then what’s the point?
At the week’s end we were ready to show the residents, children, staff and tense board members the work. When the lights came up there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. What better reward could there be? The photographers made their mark and they knew it. Everyone was empowered, especially the women who had agreed to show their faces.
Now the footage is being edited in North Carolina. Twenty-five hours of riveting video ranging from life in the shelter, to riding with the police, to daily critique sessions, night shoots in the cemetery, personality clashes between the photographers and more. This film will give a rare insightful look at what it takes to be a cool hand photographer on assignment – one week in the life of a battered women’s shelter. –Donna Ferrato
Student Pictures from the last Domestic Violence Workshop: