You'll know it when you feel it - PhMuseum

You'll know it when you feel it

Raphaela Rosella

2012 - Ongoing

Australia

Rowrow smiled at me as she lay in a hospital bed, 38 weeks pregnant with her fourth child. Her prison greens sat carefully folder next to her, two corrective service officers hovered nearby. At 9:20pm we heard his first cries. I cut his cord and he lay content with his mummy. Yet it’s hard to celebrate a birth when you know what’s coming.

Four days later, with tears in her eyes and breasts full of milk, Rowrow was handcuffed and transported back to prison. The next morning baby John and I travelled 8 hours by train so he could be with family. Seven weeks later, in a gesture of cruelty only bureaucracy could invent, Rowrow was released early on bail - the damage already done.

I never imagined my girlfriends would be incarcerated. Growing up, it was usually our boyfriends. It’s easy to grasp now when I consider, women, specifically First Nations women, account for the most significant growth in Australia’s prison system. I grew up in a small town in Australia notorious for its open drug culture and alternative lifestyles. As young women, our choices were limited; violent relationships and becoming a mother at a young age were normal, and the dream to ‘leave and start a new life’ meant leaving our family, friends and community behind.

Yet, rather than understanding the complexities of trans-generational trauma caused by colonisation and on-going dispossession, or the cyclical nature of social disadvantage in Australia, women continue to be blamed for being homeless, beaten, pregnant, unemployed, addicted to drugs or incarcerated.

As such, I have spent a decade documenting women in my life; my twin, my step-sister, and new and old friends, as they grapple with the complexities of motherhood, trans-generational trauma, turbulent relationships, bureaucratic violence, and the burden of low expectations. Each experience has been rewarding, complex, & at times heart breaking.

By acknowledging the resilience of participants & valuing the process of intimate, long-form storytelling, I hope to create a platform for each young woman’s circumstances, choices, achievements & struggles to be heard & understood. Weaving several narratives of love, longing and belonging, ‘You’ll Know It When You Feel It’ is a long-term project which aims to accentuate these invisible stories in Australia—a country where racism and class bias thrives and where those experiencing the complexities of poverty are misunderstood, demonised and dehumanised.

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  • When my teenage twin sister told me she was pregnant. I was angry; I called her a ‘slut’ & told her to get an abortion. I thought she could have a ‘better life’. But what is a better life? It was a path we were all expected to take. For many of my friends, becoming a parent young was not a ‘failure of planning’, but instead a tacit response to the choices & opportunities available to us. A lot has changed since I started photographing my sister. A Jim Beam bottle sits wedged in a plaster wall of her home. The bottle, (along with a can of soup), were thrown at the wall by my identical twin sister during an argument with her boyfriend. I’ve stopped photographing my sister due to her Ice addiction. I haven't photographed her since 2015. The difficulty was it felt like I was looking at myself and the act of photographing her was enabling her addiction. We slowly grew apart. Last week I learnt she's heavily pregnant with her third child. She's now doing a little better. We used to be inseparable. I miss my twin.

  • I remember Nunjul from my childhood, she was always reserved – she didn’t talk much, and wore a patch over her lazy eye. She didn’t live with her parents; she was placed in foster care before her mother passed away. Every second week, Nunjul and her sister would stay with a family in my neighbourhood – respite care from their main foster family. I started photographing Nunjul in 2012 when she was 18 years old and her son BJ was two. In November 2011 The Department of Community Services (DoCS) removed BJ from Nunjul’s custody because she was in a violent relationship with his father. To end the relationship, Nunjul made the decision to move away from her hometown. Rather than being supported in the decision to leave an abusive and unhealthy environment, she describes DoCS reaction to her move as an ‘inconvenience’ for the department.

  • With no car Nunjul had to travel 100km to visit her son. Seemingly reluctant to reunite Nunjul with her son, DoCS reduced visitations with BJ to one hour, once every two months. No explanation was provided. During one of Nunjul’s supervised visits with her son at a park, BJ was sick with a fever. Soothing BJ with a gentle lullaby, it became impossible to overlook the sensitivity, attention and care Nunjul displayed for BJ. Conflicted by the scarce opportunities permitted to be with her son, Nunjul nevertheless suggested to the staff to take him home and to a doctor. “I think he’s too sick, maybe you should take him home?” The staff declined. For the one-hour visit, Nunjul just held him tight. As the supervisor and myself sat watching Nunjul, we exchanged conversation about my project and young mothers. He ended by saying, “but isn’t it sad that young mothers just don’t have the skills to be a mother?” After years of fighting the system, Nunjul has since regained custody of her son.

  • I went to school with Tammara. Her mum was strict, and my friends and I bullied her because of her frizzy hair. She left high school early, and had her first baby, followed by a second soon after. She wasn’t in a good place; depression, drugs, alcohol and a turbulent relationship resulted in the removal of her first two children. She admits at that stage in her life, she had given up. I started visiting Tammara during her third pregnancy with her new partner. She was a part of my previous project ‘We met a little early, but I get to love you longer’ (2011). Although Tammara had moved interstate, her circumstances were now even more complex. Pregnant, homeless, and in a relationship with a partner waiting to be sentenced by the court, I wondered whether this baby would be the catalyst for change in her life. One year on, we celebrated Tamika’s first birthday, and one year of Tammara being clean from drugs.

  • A homemade birthday cake Tammara baked for her daughter Tamika. Tammara was embarrassed by her own efforts. The cake was imperfect and while she was self-conscious of it, we celebrated Tamika’s first birthday, and one year of Tammara being clean from drugs. 

  • The TV series ‘Charmed’ plays on the television at Tamika’s first birthday party. Not one child attended. Soon after giving birth to Tamika, Tammara moved from Nerang to Redcliffe, Queensland. The move was a deliberate attempt to distant herself and her new family from the environment, people and temptations in Nerang. As a result, Tammara, was living in an unfamiliar suburb with her daughter and partner and became isolated from her community and any support network she had.

  • “I’ve never had that love and affection from nobody hence why I crave it so much. I crave it. I want what’s in the movies but ill never get it” - Tammara. Everything seemed ok. Yet through her tough exterior she masked her constant battle with depression, borderline personality disorder, PTSD from the removal of her first two children and the turbulence of her abusive relationship. To keep her daughter safe from her partners violence, Tammara was forced to give her mother custody of Tamika. Tammara tells me she’s lost everything, her daughter, her house and all her belongings.

  • Tammara holds her daughter Tamika. Tammara's mother had brought her over for a visit. During the time of this photo, Tammara and her new partner were staying with her sister while they tried to find a home. Tammara soon discovered she was pregnant with her fourth child.

  • Tammara is 30 weeks pregnant with her fourth child. She was homeless and given a tent to live in by public housing to prove she could pay rent. She pleaded with multiple community services for help. During her pregnancy she faced court for the commercial supply of a prohibited substance. She believed going to prison was the best option for her and her unborn child. Yet each time she faced court her case was adjourned. Instead, Tammara’s son was removed from her custody after birth. I sat with Tammara as she cried for her baby boy. I can still hear her cries. Tammara is currently incarcerated and recently gave birth to her fifth child while in custody. I sat by Tammara's side in a bright surgical theatre as they delivered her baby girl and tied Tammara's tubes. Tammara chose for her tubes to be tied. She doesn't want to experience the feeling of loosing another child to system. Despite Tammara being clean from drugs and the prison running a program to accommodate for women prisoners and their children, her daughter was removed from her custody several days after birth and placed in foster care.

  • Rowrow is from Moree, New South Wales, but we met at a hotel in Armidale. A community arrts organisation called Beyond Empathy brought us together for a project – we were both participants. Rowrow’s community experiences entrenched poverty, racism, violence, addiction, and a range of other barriers to health and wellbeing. Although Rowrow has a strong sense of belonging and connection to her Gomeroi culture and community, she tries to avoid many of the issues her community faces in order to provide a stable future for her children.

  • Shiralee sits while her girlfriend Paula holds her. The two had been in a long-term long distance relationship and Paula had come to visit. They have since split. Shiralee has eight siblings, including an elder brother who is in and out of prison. I met Shiralee and her family when I was a teenager. Beyond Empathy brought us together. BE would often take me away from my hometown to work on projects with other young people to places like Moree. They provided me with a break from a violent relationship I was in. It was in Moree I met Shiralee and her family.

  • “It’s changed me in so many ways as knowing how to be a parent. To learn the positive things in life… just things I never thought I could be like… not just a mum, like a parent, a councillor, a security guard… yeah you’re not just a mum when they say you’re a mum, you’re everything” - Rowrow

  • Outside their family home, Shiralee's youngest sister Laurinda plays with her dress while waiting for a bus that will take her to Sunday school.

  • Shiralee's other sister Tricia lays with her partner Troy and their three-day-old baby girl Ty-Leta.

  • A card sent to Tricia from her boyfriend Troy while he was incarcerated.

  • Using a static channel on a television as a source of light for her bedroom, Tricia breastfeeds her baby daughter Ty-leta. Her partner Troy was in and out of jail during her pregnancy. He’d often call her daily and send her love letters and baby name suggestions. He was again serving time when this photo was taken. We both sat and breastfed our babies while we talked about Troy and his time in jail. I visited Tricia and Troy the other day. Troy was recently released from jail again. He told me that he's only spent 3 birthdays outside of jail since the age of 9. He'll be 30 soon.

  • “He’s like a gentleman. He’s not like any of the other fulla’s around here”. Tricia describes her boyfriend Troy.

  • Rowrow's sister Kayla holds her son Kaylan in the front yard of their parent’s home in Moree, New South Wales, Australia.

  • Rowrow holds her son baby John. Rowrow was incarcerated at 8 months pregnant due to breaching an Apprehended Violence Order between her and her partner. At 38 weeks pregnant, ready to be induced I rushed to Sydney’s Westmead Hospital to be by Rowrow's side. I couldn’t allow them to keep her alone. Her prison greens sat carefully folder next to her, two corrective service officers hovered nearby. At 9:20pm we heard his first cries. I cut his cord and he lay content with his mummy. Yet it’s hard to celebrate a birth when you know what’s coming. Four days later, with tears in her eyes and breasts full of milk, Rowrow was handcuffed and transported back to prison. The next morning baby John and I travelled 8 hours by train to Moree so he could be with family. Seven weeks later, in a gesture of cruelty only bureaucracy could invent, Rowrow was released early on bail.

  • Laurinda stands in her back yard.


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