Beyond Empathy mentee, Raphaela Rosella wins prestigious world press photo award
Raphaela Rosella wins prestigious World Press Photo Award [Beyond Empathy]

Beyond Empathy mentee Raphaela Rosella wins prestigious World Press Photo Award
19 February 2015

Raphaela Rosella, known to her friends as Rosie, has been involved with Nelson Meers Foundation project partner, Beyond Empathy, since 2006, with Beyond Empathy providing a mentorship for Rosie with photographer Wendy Kimpton.

Hauntingly beautiful images exploring class, poverty, stigma and gender saw Rosie, 26, selected from over 97,000 entries to win prestigious World Press Photo Portrait Prize in February this year. 

“I see photography less about image and more about message; a device to make a difference and a device to give a voice. A passion for social change is the driving force behind my practice — to see others without stereotypes, to hear the voice of those made voiceless and to seek to make a difference … is what powers my desire to be a visual storyteller.”

For ten years, Rosie has been photographing the same families in Moree, where Beyond Empathy has been implementing its 3Moree program, with a focus on “inter-generational trauma, abuse and disadvantage.” But the image that captured the award is more playful, and also slightly surreal.

Rosie had been photographing a Kamilaroi girl called Laurinda since she was two. She was working on a photo essay of the girl's family for a masterclass program run by the World Press Photo awards.  "She's danced out to go to Sunday School, and I had to chase after her to get the photo. Laurinda is a bubbly, energetic young girl and usually poses with hands on her hips and duck lips. But as she stood ever so still and gently covered her face  I knew this image was going to be special."  Rosie shoots on film, and said she rushed home anxious to make sure she had caught the moment on the right exposure.  

The award is the latest in a number of successes for the Queensland College of Arts first-class honours graduate, who was named Australia’s Top Emerging Documentary Photographer by Capture Magazine, joined leading photography collective Oculi, and participated in photography festival Les Recontres D’Arles and workshop with Magnum photographer Alessandra Sanguinetti, thanks to the Qantas Spirit of Youth Awards (SOYA).  Rosie is also coeditor of The Australian Photojournalist, a non-profit publication dedicated to given voice, celebrating the human condition and casting a critical eye on journalism.

“I can’t explain it, all these things I couldn’t even imagine happening! I just feel like I’m living a dream!’’ she laughs.

Rosie is no stranger herself to poverty, disadvantage and stigma.  Nimbin, notable for its environmental initiatives and artistic community, has been described as the drug capital of Australia, a social experiment, an escapist subculture.  A “strange place indeed”.

“Nimbin has this massive stigma. It’s the life you see. When we were kids, you’d see heroin overdoses on the street.

“I didn’t realise it wasn’t normal until I moved out of Nimbin,’’ Rosie recalls, across the kitchen table in the small Wooloongabba home she shares with Peruvian husband Giancarlo Perrigo Ferre, 27, and their one-year-old son João.

“I was always labelled. As soon as you say you’re from Nimbin, it’s like, oh, you’re a druggie. No, I’m not a pot-smoking hippie. I don’t like it.

“But it was a very close-knit, caring community, regardless of the hardship, the stigma of Nimbin, the drug-dealing and all that. Everybody looked out for each other.’’

Rosie has always been artistic, always wanted to be a photographer. She bought her first camera in grade six at the local chemist, after earning $80 busking for tourists. She travelled 65km by bus to and from Richmond River High School, in Lismore, every day purely because of their photographic program.

“In year nine I got my first Pentax Spotmatic. I don’t know where the money came from, it cost $90, and dad took me and (my sister) Mimi up to Brisbane — it was our first time to Brisbane — to look in pawn and hock shops for cameras.

“I photographed everything. It was just something about capturing and holding on to things. The sentimental value.’’

Still, Rosie never dreamt of making a career out of her hobby, could not imagine being able to go to university — “that was for rich and smart kids, so I automatically thought, not for me!’’ The lament of a much-loved, exasperated year six teacher — “you’ll never finish high school’’ - continued to turn over in her mind, the sting perennially fresh.

At 16, Rosie earnt a scholarship from Father Chris Riley’s Youth Off the Streets and moved to Adelaide, to live with her Nonna and finish a Certificate IV in photographic imaging. It was also around this time she came to the attention of Beyond Empathy, and started participating in their programs.

“They helped me see beyond the horizons of my community and its hardships,’’ she says.

At 18, back in Nimbin, a friend convinced Rosie to complete the Preparing for Success program at Lismore’s Southern Cross University. She was accepted into Queensland College of Art Bachelor of Photography, graduated with first-class honours in 2012, and now has her eye on a PhD.

“I can’t explain, they're mixed emotions (on being accepted) — freaking out that I’m actually going to have to move to Brisbane, freaking out that I won’t be able to afford to live here, freaking out that I won’t be good enough, smart enough.

“But I’m pretty proud of myself. I got one credit in my whole degree and I cried, I was so upset,’’ she laughs.

Sydney photographer and graphic designer Wendy Kimpton has been Rosie’s mentor and friend, through Beyond Empathy, for more than six years. She, for one, is not surprised at this “unbelievable talent’s’’ success. “Rosie’s photos are really special because they’re so truthful, they’re moments that are so real and often quite hauntingly beautiful,’’ Kimpton, 37, says.

“She’s not afraid to tackle big issues. She doesn’t shy away from moments that perhaps other photographers might, yet she is still so tender in the way she treats the subjects. When I look at her photos I never feel like they were taken without that subject’s complete 100 per cent trust in her.

“Her life experience is so instrumental in where her need comes from to tell stories of people that might be voiceless, or might be part of society that isn’t given the same outlets to tell their story or the same access to art.’’

Kimpton says Rosie has turned her experiences of social disadvantage into personal strength and is an inspiration for other young people in similar situations.

“So much is in the perception of what is possible, and if you can change the perception of people anything is possible,’’ she says. “No matter what situation you’ve been in, you can turn it on its head and use it to make the best life for yourself.’’

From participant to facilitator, Rosie has been involved with Beyond Empathy for more than six years, photographing the beautifully painted pregnant belly casts made as part of the Mubali project in Woodridge and Moree, as well as helping with other programs.

While pregnant Rosie completed a Diploma of Community Service (case management) with the aim of forging a career in the arts welfare sector, continuing her long-term documentary photography as a personal love rather than a sole source of income.  “I received so much support when I was younger and I just feel that if you’re in that situation and you didn’t have someone who cares about you, and offers you that support, you could easily fall through the cracks and hit rock bottom. I just feel like I have to do it,’’ says Rosie.

“Many of the communities I work in are experiencing entrenched poverty, racism, trans-generational trauma, violence, addiction and a range of other barriers to health and wellbeing. Rather than looking at the complexities and realities of social disadvantage in Australia, society blames poor families for deviating from the nuclear family image.

“The families I work with always welcome me with open arms. To allow me into their lives, and to share with strangers their resilience, isolation and struggles is a courageous act.’’

Rosie pauses, listens to her son burbling away happily with his dad in the next room.

“People that haven’t experienced disadvantage have no idea what it’s like, to walk in those shoes. These are very complex issues. Every story and every person experiences it differently.

“I want people to realise that, to not stigmatise and judge and have such negative opinions of people that are experiencing hardship. I just really want people to empathise.’’

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