The sun slowly rises against an 18th-century Mallorcan farmhouse in Spain. Inside, seven photographers lounge, coffee in hand, near a cackling fireplace. Sleepy-eyed yet engaged, each weighs in on the discussion: from ethics debates to work critiques to personal disclosures. They have talked through the night and, well, for seven days, about one thing: eroticism.
The Erotic Eye Workshop brings together handpicked photographers from across the world to explore sexuality through the lens.
"It is more like poetry than porn ," photographer and founder Donna Ferrato tells TIME. "This is not a masturbation workshop. This is not about the photographers getting off. Photographers are forbidden to participate in the things they see. Photographers must learn to see what lies underneath without judgement and without staging pictures to suit their own desires."
Ferrato, a self-described revolutionary who came of age in the late 1960s, says the workshop began as a push for gender equality. "Revolution is in my blood," she says. "And standing up for women’s right is in my blood."
She picked up the camera in the early 80s, creating work that culminated into Living With the Enemy, a haunting series depicting domestic violence as it happened. Years later, she launched a campaign encouraging women to leave abusive relationships and more recently, chronicled abortion clinics across the U.S. But beyond the dark underbelly of sex, she was also interested in the complex relationship between desire and pleasure.
Documenting everything from swinger groups to S&M clubs to group marriages to partner swap parties in country clubs, she explored eroticism in its many forms. She worked with writer Claudia Dowling on a two-year project for Oxygen TV exploring sex lives on videotape, and followed a CNN series about what women want sexually. More recently, she released a book titled Love and Lust. Ferrato's three-decade-long push to bring tangibility to a sometimes oversimplified tabloid fetish has been far-ranging, if not widely accepted.
"Society views eroticism as strange," she says. "I’ve had all these walls around me that I’ve been banging my head into as I’ve documenting this, amid small breakthroughs. Love & Lust was kind of a breakthrough but the book almost destroyed my career because mainstream people were so shocked by it."
The workshop is aimed at shattering such taboos. "We only ever hear the bad ways sex is used against women, through legislation that condemns a woman’s reproductive rights, through human sexual trafficking, rape on college campus’, forced marriages. It’s all bad," she says. "My hope is that this body of work will illuminate the wondrous aspect of our sexuality, especially for women who are embarrassed about their sexuality. Women need to feel safe and to trust the person they are with. That ’s when things get good. We are all sexual beings. We are here because of sex. Let ’s not be afraid to answer the call of the wild."
Ferrato brought in six ordinary people who volunteered to be photographed. The subjects first spend time getting to know the photographers. There are under strict rules not to meet afterwards or photograph privately, Ferrato says. "My photographers must understand the responsibility they have to mankind with their ability as photographers, not to rape people with their cameras."
This year's workshop will be held in May in Berlin, alongside humanistic photographer Jane Evelyn Atwood and Ferrato's partner-in-photography Tomeu Coll. "It may be wilder in Berlin, because Berlin is for artists and artists think about love differently," she says. "In this city, where culture, art and sexuality collide in a the spirit of liberation, there won’t be an erotic secret safe in Berlin."
Donna Ferrato is a photographer and activist based in New York, who documented domestic violence for over 30 years. The Erotic Eye Workshop will be held in Berlin from May 20 to 27, 2016. The best work from the trilogy will be published in a book by Fotoevidence.