Essay: The pho­tog­ra­phy of Raphaela Rosella, by Kim Guthrie


RAPHAELA ROSELLA IS MY KIND OF peo­ple; there’s no bull­shit. She’s ex­pe­ri­enced quite a bit of life in her 28 years. She grew up in the north­ern NSW town of Nim­bin – you know, that place where all the back­pack­ers from By­ron Bay go to get their drugs. It’s a town where kids grow up fast and they see things other kids don’t. For those in­ter­ested in the tech­ni­cal stuff, Rosella uses a Has­sel­blad medium-for­mat film cam­era. She says, “It’s a means to slow me down, to en­able a more thought­ful, con­tem­pla­tive ap­proach to cap­tur­ing im­ages.” She sees things as they are, in­stinc­tively, with­out em­bel­lish­ment. She’s a gifted vis­ual sto­ry­teller, never al­low­ing her im­ages to stray into pa­tro­n­is­ing or ex­ploita­tive ter­ri­tory. In fact she is care­ful to shoot things as they are and man­ages to carry them off with­out sen­ti­men­tal­ity or ar­ti­fice. Her work is with­out the clichés of pho­tog­ra­phy so many now rely upon (look around In­sta­gram for five min­utes and you’ll see what I mean). What makes her work spe­cial? There’s a cer­tain je ne sais quoi to the real deal, which is ob­vi­ous when you see it, and Rosella has it.

She lives her work. It’s not a dry in­tel­lec­tual ex­er­cise, it’s alive and know­ing, the voice of ex­pe­ri­ence. Em­pa­thetic is a word that springs to mind when I look at it. There are shades of the Amer­i­can photographer Nan Goldin in the feel of Rosella’s work. She has a sim­i­lar aes­thetic and re­la­tion­ships; she’s an in­stinc­tual fem­i­nist. In a 2015 essay on Goldin’s work in Bomb mag­a­zine, art critic Stephen West­fall said, “It was through her pho­tog­ra­phy that Goldin found mean­ing, and she cher­ished her re­la­tion­ships with those she pho­tographed. She also found the cam­era as a use­ful po­lit­i­cal tool, in or­der to in­form the pub­lic about im­por­tant is­sues si­lenced.” I also see sim­i­lar­i­ties to Richard Billing­ham’s work. The fly-on-the-wall moody doc­u­men­ta­tion of oth­ers’ per­sonal space and the em­pa­thy and love vis­i­ble in his Ray’s a Laugh se­ries (1996) are also vis­i­ble in Rosella’s work. Art his­to­rian and photographer Ju­lian Stal­labrass wrote in 2001 of Billing­ham’s se­ries, “Ray, his fa­ther, and his mother Liz, ap­pear at first glance as grotesque fig­ures, with the al­co­holic fa­ther drunk on his home brew, and the mother, an obese chain smoker with an ap­par­ent fas­ci­na­tion for knick-knacks and jig­saw puz­zles. How­ever, there is such in­tegrity in this work that Ray and Liz ul­ti­mately shine through as trou­bled yet deeply hu­man and touch­ing per­son­al­i­ties.” Rosella is of Ital­ian de­scent; her fa­ther’s par­ents came from the Napoli re­gion. She has built on­go­ing re­la­tion­ships with the peo­ple she pho­to­graphs and trav­els be­tween her home town of Nim­bin and the cen­tral north­ern NSW town of Moree. Moree is a deeply di­vided, some say racist town with the same se­ri­ous is­sues plagu­ing the so­cial fab­ric of many ru­ral cen­tres Aus­tralia-wide, crys­tal metham­phetamine (ice) use be­ing pos­si­bly the most de­struc­tive of these. This is fu­elled and com­pli­cated fur­ther by “the com­plex­i­ties of trans­gen­er­a­tional trauma caused by coloni­sa­tion and on­go­ing dis­pos­ses­sion, dis­crim­i­na­tion, limited op­por­tu­ni­ties, bu­reau­cratic vi­o­lence, and the bur­den of low ex­pec­ta­tions,” says Rosella, which causes an in­evitable spi­ral into crime. Rosella says, “My sto­ries are not about spe­cific towns, they are about a wider is­sue about a coun­try where racism and class bias thrives and where those ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the com­plex­i­ties of poverty are mis­un­der­stood, de­monised and de­hu­man­ised. I aim to cre­ate a plat­form for each young woman’s cir­cum­stances, choices, achieve­ments and strug­gles to be heard and un­der­stood.” Her work tack­les this re­al­ity in a stealthy, non-judg­men­tal, hon­est man­ner. There’s a feel­ing of mu­tual trust and love ric­o­chet­ing back and forth be­tween photographer and sub­jects that is pal­pa­ble in her work. It’s punc­tu­ated by at­ten­dant ephemera; let­ters from jail, a hospi­tal ID bracelet, a birth­day cake, an al­co­hol bot­tle wedged in a wall. And best of all she isn’t try­ing to be any­thing – it’s in­tu­itive. The work is seam­less and real be­cause she places her­self in the cen­tre of the ac­tion. In con­ver­sa­tion Rosella seems pro­tec­tive and nur­tur­ing of her friends and ex­tended fam­ily; maybe that comes from be­ing a mother to two chil­dren or one half of a set of twin girls. I don’t know; I’ve only had a phone con­ver­sa­tion with her and looked at her work. Rosella’s work screams cred­i­bil­ity and con­vic­tion, which is of the ut­most im­por­tance. It’s ironic I said “screams”, be­cause in con­tra­dic­tion to the some­times har­row­ing sub­ject mat­ter, the work ap­pears re­ally quiet, gen­tle and lov­ing. Con­trast is present in all good art and more broadly gives birth to the rich­ness in ev­ery­thing we ex­pe­ri­ence in life.

Rosella’s work tack­les this re­al­ity in a stealthy, non-judg­men­tal, hon­est man­ner.

www.raphae­ @raphae­larosella


In Your Dreams, 6 Jan­uary – 7 April, 2018 UNSW Gal­leries, Syd­ney gag­pro­ art­de­­leries

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