"When my teenage twin sister told me she was pregnant… I called her a slut and told her to get an abortion because I thought she could have had a better life," writes Raphaela Rosella in the introduction to her photographic project documenting disadvantaged young mothers in Australia. Her initial reaction mirrors the social stereotypes, prejudice, and judgement that often surrounds teen pregnancy. For Rosella, working with this topic was a journey—both artistic and deeply personal—to understanding the challenges these young women have to face daily.
Rosella, now 27, was raised in Nimbin, New South Wales, the so-called "drug capital of Australia." In 2015 she won the prestigious World Press Photo award for portrait photography. Her winning entry is a tenderly composed shot of a girl on her way to Sunday school, with a purple dress over her face. It's not kind of work you expect to see when thinking of poverty or inequality, and it's a breath of fresh air in the world where most social issues are still shot by men with expensive equipment.
Broadly: You grew up in a small community in Australia. Has growing up there influenced your creative vision?
My background definitely had a big influence on my work. I grew up in Nimbin, a small community inland from Byron Bay. It doesn't have the best reputation in Australia. The hippies came in the 70s for the Aquarius Festival and basically never left. It's a colorful place which celebrates alternative lifestyles and welcomes all walks of life, but there is a strong and open drug culture. As a child, drug use, overdoses, drug dealing, and violence were easily seen on the streets of my very small community. However I also experienced a strong sense of belonging through an extended family and tight-knit community. So I guess these experiences and environments have influenced the stories I tell today.
How did you get into photography?
I always wanted to be a photographer. Both my parents are artists so it must run in the blood. I remember busking on the street as a kid so I could rake up $80 to buy my own point and shoot film camera. I chose to go to high school in a larger town 30 km away so I could do photography.
Does your background allow you to establish a better connection with your subjects and see things an outsider wouldn't be able to notice?
I guess I have that insider perspective because I tend to document people who I know and environments I can relate to. I try to focus on the everyday rather than sensationalizing certain aspects. I often deliberately chose not to photograph things that others may feel compelled to photograph.
Can working with someone you know sometimes be challenging?
It's definitely hard. It's even more difficult working with family, especially your twin. I've built long-term relationships with a number of young women who I knew from my childhood… At times it can take a lot of energy. When you care, you're not just there to photograph, you're there to support them. A lot of the women I photograph, their lives are complex and turbulent. It's hard when you've been there with them through the good times and tough times, especially when you see mutual 'friends' running them down and not understanding what may have brought them to this point in life. I may not agree with all the choices they make but I'm not there to judge.
You mentioned your twin sister earlier. I know that documenting her was first big project you did on young mothers.
I started working on the topic during my third year at university for my major project. I was documenting other girls who I knew and were pregnant and had kids very young. I was also documenting my nephew for another class project. My teacher asked me: "Why are you not documenting your twin sister? She's the whole reason why you're doing this body of work." For some reason, I thought I wasn't allowed to document my twin sister.
There are lots of stereotypes of young moms, both socially and visually. Did you consciously avoid photographing something or in a certain way or it was intuitive?
When making my earlier work I did photograph just about everything, but I was very deliberate in what made the final edit. Now I am very conscious of what I do. People are very quick to judge and stereotype so it is essential that my work accentuates the complexities of their individual lived experiences.
It's great to see these stories through the eyes of a female photographer. Female voices in photography are still underrepresented, particularly when it comes to prestigious awards and social issues.
I totally agree. I try to avoid telling stories which I can't relate to on some level. This is why I chose to stay in Australia and tell Australian stories, especially ones which are close to me. I don't like going in and taking someone's story and not spending time with them. For example, Laurinda, the girl in the purple dress whose photograph won World Press Photo, I've been photographing her and her family for over seven years, since she was two years old. It is important that the stories I tell and the relationships I build are long-term investments.
Awards like the World Press Photo bring a lot of attention to the photographer and the issues they photograph. Did that affect you and your community?
I think was a great opportunity to highlight that many communities in Australia face entrenched poverty, ongoing dispossession, marginalization, racism, violence, addiction, and a range of other barriers to health and wellbeing. We're one of the richest nations on the globe yet many communities in Australia are experiencing extreme poverty and it goes unnoticed.