Moving Images: Newport Art Museum selection highlights the plight of domestic abuse survivors

The Newport Art Museum has added a collection of works by world-renowned documentary photographer and activist Donna Ferrato, and will be displaying a curated selection in the Howard Gardiner Cushing Gallery that documents the plight of domestic abuse survivors. 

Donna Ferrato: Selections from Living with the Enemy will run from Feb. 6 to June 6. The exhibition includes defiant, vulnerable portraits of various subjects who wear on their faces the psychological trauma (and physical scars) of the violence they have experienced. Other photographs illuminate the perilous world navigated by battered women, such as the image of a man being led out of a kitchen in handcuffs while a crying woman and child look on, to a close-up of Becca Jean Hughes — standing behind the bars of a jail cell — who spent decades in a Missouri maximum security prison for shooting her husband while he strangled her. 

The judge in Hughes’s case disallowed the introduction of her abuser’s violent history as evidence. 

The exhibition is being arranged by Newport Art Museum senior curator Dr. Francine Weiss and curatorial assistant Megan Horn. The museum was given a broader collection of Ferrato’s work in 2020. Weiss said the exhibition’s timing is no accident. With the rise in every form of abuse since the onset of the pandemic, it’s important to use art to tell these stories, she said. Opening 2021 with selections from a newly expanded permanent collection was one way to accomplish this.

“I’ve [always] liked the idea of doing an exhibition of collection works to show visitors what we have in the museum’s permanent collection that’s not always on display,” said Weiss. “But the idea to show these photographs at this time had to do with current events and the rise in domestic partner violence during COVID.”

Working as a photojournalist on assignment in New York, a chance encounter in 1982 led to Ferrato’s foray into using photography to document domestic abuse. She witnessed a physical assault in New Jersey of a young woman by her husband. The incident resulted in the first photo in what would become a decade-long project culminating in her 1991 published collection Living with the Enemy. Ferrato spent the bulk of the 1980s traveling the country, even staying in women’s shelters and accompanying calls with law enforcement, documenting in hyper-realistic detail what she saw. 

Ferrato is a tireless advocate for domestic abuse survivors. She founded the nonprofit Domestic Abuse Survivors Inc. and served as the organization’s president. With awards and accolades too numerous to mention, Ferrato’s work has been featured in more than 500 solo exhibitions. She launched the I am Unbeatable campaign in 2014, a multimedia archive meant to raise public awareness.

“For her, photography and activism go hand-in-hand. The photographs are linked to the reason she made them. She has the intention of promoting awareness of domestic partner violence and violence against women and children,” said Weiss. “Ferrato caught pivotal moments. She has a real gift for creating striking compositions.”

Ferrato’s earlier works display the freewheeling liberation brought on by the sexual revolution, exploring erotic subject matter deemed taboo in mainstream society. However, a darker side emerged. In her second book, Love and Lust, Ferrato wrote about her aesthetic transition: “I was now driven to reveal the unspeakable things that were happening behind closed doors.”

“It was intended to make people aware and even to bring about changes in the legal system. Living with the Enemy was groundbreaking in this regard,” said Weiss. “It didn’t pull any punches…. It was at a time when abused women who killed their abusers to protect themselves could not use ‘self-defense’ as a defense.”

Weiss hopes the viewership of their latest exhibition transcends the museum’s usual crowd. They are now in the process of planning a panel discussion, shooting for a date sometime in March, in partnership with local nonprofit organizations.

“She has already reached beyond standard museumgoers with her own work,” she said. “The intention was to show that abuse exists and its impact. Documenting the physical injuries, the presence of children in violent homes, even the deaths confronted people with a harsh and undeniable reality.”