29 November 2017

Portraits of Pain and Perseverance: The Faces of Australian Women

29 November 2017 - Written by Lucia De Stefani

Australian photographer Raphaela Rosella, the winner of the PHmuseum 2017 Women Photographers Grant, chronicles the struggles of young women and minorities in her homeland.

© Raphaela Rosella, from the series, You'll Know It When You Feel It

Standing in front of her house on a sidewalk in Moree, New South Wales, Laurinda waits for the bus to take her to school on a Sunday morning.

In an act of defiance toward the camera or maybe a flirtatious playfulness fitting for her age, she covers her head with her purple skirt, goading the photographer and concealing her face. At the age of eight, she boasted a childish freedom and the impulse to cheerfully challenge the world. 

But there’s more to this photo.

“[The picture] has subtleties around the environment and community that she lives in,” says Raphaela Rosella, an Australian photographer who has been documenting the dynamics of local Australian communities for the past decade. 

Laurinda stands before her home, a one-story building she shares with nine siblings, “one of the strongest and most loving families that I know in Moree,” Rosella says. Wooden boards cover holes in the building’s walls, as the government is slow to address the family’s need for repairs.

Capturing hints of complicated realities and a tense social context, in her work You’ll Know It When You Feel It, which earned her the first PHmuseum Women Photographers Grant, Rosella decides to focus primarily on young women - possibly those most affected - the harsh conditions they endure, and the resilience they develop, reclaiming their narratives for them.

© Raphaela Rosella, from the series, You'll Know It When You Feel It

In her long-form documentary, Rosella aims to reveal the “invisible stories” of Australia, a country still deeply tinged by the grisly aftermaths of colonisation, social discrimination, racism, and “trans-generational trauma” suffered by the minorities, particularly women and men of Aboriginal descent.

Tammara, Tricia, Rowrow, Shiralee, Nunjul: these are women whose portraits speak to a condition shared by women and girls across communities in New South Wales and Queensland, where Rosella has mostly centred her work. These are the women whose needs are often neglected and dehumanised, who have suffered abuses, the course of their lives many times diverted. Women whose stories Rosella illustrates with an intimate authenticity and candor.

Growing up in Nimbin, a small town in New South Wales notorious for its open drug culture and alternative lifestyles, Rosella witnessed many people falling into the same pattern of drug abuse, domestic violence, depression and incarceration. There is a stigma attached to such places - “limited opportunities for young people, boredom and chaos” - but also a sense of pride: “a strong community, love, longing and belonging.”

© Raphaela Rosella, from the series, You'll Know It When You Feel It

Her first documentary project focused on her twin sister, who was pregnant at the time. As their lives diverged, a sense of resentment emerged, along with a need for understanding: “I thought she could have a better life, [but] I questioned, ‘What is a better life?’”

Photographing her twin proved emotionally draining for Rosella, who ended up choosing symbols to tell a bigger story: a liquor bottle lodged in the drywall during a heated exchange between her sister and her sister's boyfriend “represents the complexity and normalisation of violence,” she explains.

Scholarships granted by non-profit organisations enabled Rosella to continue photographing. In her work, she dug deep into such “trans-generational trauma,” the “shameful history that Australia has and how that impacts especially First Nation people in Australia.” She also explores “bureaucratic violence,” formalities crafted to hinder the addressing of people’s needs. “I feel like bureaucracy becomes this way to suppress the person - if we give them all [these] forms…The more forms we give them, the easier they're going to give up,” Rosella says.

 © Raphaela Rosella, from the series, You'll Know It When You Feel It

But looking at the intense portraits and intimate moments she captures, we learn how these women and their communities overcome such obstacles and abuses. 

In the light of a TV that serves more as a lamp than entertainment, Tricia breastfeeds her son.

Tammara smokes a cigarette as she reclines in her living room armchair. New to town, she celebrates her third daughter’s birthday. But it should also be a celebration of life: in and out of prison, she has finally been clean for a year. And yet, as she reaches for a smoke, we sense sadness in her solace and solitude. No children are playing; the balloons lie motionless on the floor. 

Her story is one of endurance and compassion. After giving birth to her fourth son, the chaos that followed was numbing: She lost custody of this child, the conundrums of detention and bureaucracy wearing on her as well as her unfathomable future.

© Raphaela Rosella, from the series, You'll Know It When You Feel It

But Rosella chooses not to show it all. Gestures, moments, and clues allude to the qualities of these women’s lives. 

“A lot goes on behind the scenes,” Rosella says, speaking of her relationships with the women she portrays, as well as the need to sometimes put down the camera. “We all know that there is chaos and dysfunction, but do I really need to focus on that?” she wonders. “So I chose to tiptoe around the issues and then [give] slight hints through subtle ways.” 

By combining her fearless gaze with a sensitivity to telling details, Rosella shares a series of stark images that together convey a sense of the formidable challenges that consume individuals, especially those who fall out of their community and into isolation. Nevertheless, she conveys with empathy the strength that these women cultivate, making their experience universal and allowing viewers to feel compassion for the women steeped in these difficult realities.


Raphaela Rosella is an Australian documentary photographer based in Brisbane. Her work explores the experience of young women facing social disadvantage in Australia, in the form of documentary storytelling.

Lucia De Stefani is a multimedia reporter focusing on photography, illustration, culture, and everything teens. She lives between New York and Italy. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Written by

Lucia De Stefani

Reading time

6 minutes

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