Profile by Lauren Kessler
Raphaela Rosella is an Australian documentary storyteller. She is the current issue editor of The Australian Photojournalist, a “non- profit publication dedicated to giving voice, casting a critical eye on global journalism while utilizing visual storytelling and documentary practice as a catalyst for social activism”. Raphaela’s interest in photojournalism inspires her to use visual storytelling to create social change. Her work “You didn’t take away my future, you gave me a new one”, explores the relationship between class, stigma and gender. Documenting three young mothers (Nunjul, Tammara and Rowrow), Raphaela seeks to give a voice to those considered disadvantaged in Australian society. In 2012, she joined Australian photography collective Oculi and is represented throughout Europe by Agence Vu. I spoke to Raphaela about her photographic journey, and how she stays motivated to keep producing work.
With teenage pregnancy stereotyped as a social problem, most dominant discourses do not consider the limited choices available to many young women experiencing ‘disadvantage’. As a consequence, becoming a mother at a young age can be perceived as an irrational and irresponsible choice. However, for many disadvantaged youth, becoming a parent young may not be a ‘failure of planning’, but instead a tacit response to the limited choices and opportunities available to them.
Through exploring relationships between class, stigma and gender, and giving voice to young mothers through documentary storytelling, ‘You didn’t take away my future, you gave me a new one’ seeks to explore the lived experience of three young mothers; Nunjul, Tammara and Rowrow.
The aim of this project is not to argue the oversimplified narratives of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ mothers. Instead, it is hoped that the project can serve as a platform to show the complexities of each woman’s lived experience, and challenge conventional views of young mothers through recognising the validity of their (often misunderstood and stigmatised) choices. Please note: The installation of this project was presented with audio scapes of the women telling their own stories.
What is it about visual-storytelling that compels you?
I guess what draws me to visual-storytelling is its ability to invoke a visceral, emotional
reaction that in turn compels an audience to act, feel and/or empathise.
What are the most rewarding aspects of being a photojournalist?
The most rewarding aspects of being a documentary visual storyteller would be the
relationships and friendships I have made through my projects. Although the majority of the
people I photograph are already friends or family, working and collaborating with
them means I get to nurture our relationship and become a stakeholder in
What motivates you the most to pursue a new project?
My projects never seem to officially finish; I believe they evolve (as do my
participant’s lives), pushing me to investigate broader issues.
What are the most important things you have learnt so far in your career?
From what sources do you derive your inspiration?
In my home town, you could say drug use, drug dealing, domestic violence and unemployment are all accepted as ‘normal’. And as a child, heroin use and over-doses were easily seen on the streets of my community. This of course prevented me from taking hard drugs, but I found myself drinking alcohol excessively from a young age. However, it is important to highlight, while there certainly is hardship, I have experienced a strong sense of belonging through an extended family and tight-knit community. It’s these experiences and environments that have played a major role in the issues and people I photograph.
As well as deriving my inspiration from my everyday I also spend a lot of time on the Internet looking at other visual practitioners practices. When I can I splurge and buy books for research and inspiration.
In your work “We Met a little early, but I get to love you longer”, how did you
approach bringing a camera into the situation and having a photographic
relationship? How do these families feel about it?
I’ve been photographing my friends and family since high school and was already
photographing my everyday before starting the project. I would have photographed
the events regardless of the project. It only really became focused when I started to
question my response to my twin sister’s pregnancy. It was from there I officially asked
the girls if they would like to be involved. The families enjoyed working on the project
because of the issues I raise with the wider community. Both ‘We met a little early, but
I get to love you longer’ and ‘You didn’t take away my future, you gave me a new
one’ serve as a platform to show the complexities of each woman’s lived experience
and challenge conventional views of young mothers.
How does it feel for these women to have a photographic record of their children at
those points in their life?
By looking specifically at Gillianne’s story, I feel having a photographic record of these
events meant that her son could be remembered. Talking about SIDS and a death in
the family is often taboo, but having a photographic record of these events meant
baby Lachlan’s story wasn’t hushed. For Gillianne I think this means a lot.
Has having a child influenced your perspective or understanding of the work?
Although I had a personal understanding of some of the issues faced by the
Women, I wasn’t a mother when I made the work. Since having a baby I can better understand how challenging, rewarding, self-sacrificing and chaotic
motherhood really is. I admire these women.
You are a mixed-media artist using various photographic mediums such as film,
digitals and scans of text. How do you approach these formats differently and does it
change the experience? What do they add to the work?
As I changed my digital 35mm SLR for a medium format camera (with a waist level
finder), I found my presence to be less intrusive. It allowed me to maintain
conversation and participation, and it reduced the physical barrier that can be
created by holding a camera in front of your face (directly between you and the
other person). I found that this change better enabled my camera as an apparatus
for looking and experiencing, and allowed for greater intimacy.
I continue to use various formats and mediums when appropriate. The sensitive nature of the
circumstances I am often working in means I am uncomfortable photographing
excessively to capture the ‘right’ image. To combat this I employed a slower, more
reflective data collection process that emerged from immersing myself in each woman’s life. Using film and becoming aware of my limited frames, encouraged me to be more economical when photographing. By listening to and recording their stories I was able to formulate an in-depth understanding of each woman’s lived experience.
Are you currently working on any new projects? If so, what are they about?
I am continuing to investigate relationships between class, stigma and gender
among young women and men experiencing ‘disadvantage’ in Australia. Focusing
closely on issues such as the cyclic nature of poverty, limited opportunities, low
expectations, low levels of literacy and numeracy skills, domestic violence, addiction,
societies construction of ‘bad mothers’ and the dehumanising effects of excessive
What advice would you give to emerging and aspiring photojournalists?
Photograph what you are passionate about not what you think is sellable. Do it
because you love it, because you are compelled to make work.
Make a visual diary, write down your thoughts/ideas and fill it with inspiration,
experiments and work in progress.
Immerse yourself with the work of others; photographers, writers, filmmakers, sculptors,
painters, dancers, poets etc.
Raphaela’s website can be viewed at: Raphaela Rosella