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This Photo Series Gives Teenage Mums The Respect Society Doesn’t
6 Sep 2016 6:33 AM
The rhetoric surrounding teenage pregnancy frames it as a social dilemma. If it’s not a stigma to be stamped out, it’s an epidemic sweeping through communities – one of the greatest cultural taboos. Our collective denouncement of young parenthood is shaped largely by the media, by ludicrous forms of ‘entertainment’ such as 16 and Pregnant or Teen Moms, and by cautionary governmental campaigns that work on stereotypes and shock factor statistics. In every instance, any real human element is missing.
28-year-old Raphaela Rosella is a photographer and a visual storyteller, and a lot of what she shoots is what she knows, intimately. It’s only natural then, that most of her work to date has been particularly focused on translating the choices and experiences of girls growing up in both her immediate and extended communities. “I’m seeking to accentuate the complexities and cyclical nature of social disadvantage”, she says, “and acknowledge the resilience of young women who share this lived experience.”
“I grew up in Nimbin, Australia”, she tells Refinery29, when asked about her background. “It’s a small town on the east coast that’s infamous for its open drug culture and alternative lifestyles.” Nestled within the ‘Rainbow Region’ of New South Wales, Nimbin is commonly known as the capital of counterculture in Australia, where seasoned backpackers flock to indulge in the heady pleasures of marijuana and new age healing centres.
“Despite being one of the richest nations on earth, many communities in Australia face entrenched poverty, ongoing dispossession, marginalisation, racism, violence, addiction and a range of other barriers to health and wellbeing,” Rosella explains. Having spent time in a number of these communities through her work, she is well versed in the challenges faced by young people whose lives unfold against a backdrop of hardship.
Rosella pinpoints the moment her own teenage twin sister told her she was pregnant as the trigger for her desire to hone in specifically on the intricacies of teenage motherhood. She is starkly honest about the reaction she had at the time. “I was angry; I called her a ‘slut’ and told her to get an abortion. I thought she could have a ‘better life’”, she remembers. But after a while, she began to ask herself the question, “What is a better life?”
“As young women, our choices were limited; violent relationships and having children young seemed normal and the dream to ‘leave and start a new life’ meant leaving our family, friends and community behind”, she explains. While certainly Rosella and her sister struggled through their own experiences of hardship and dysfunction, they also found a strong sense of belonging within the tightly knit community and extended family they were a part of, and she acknowledges the network of support that this breeds as a result. “My community and the communities I work in are quite accepting of young parenthood”, she says, and goes on to suggest that that general attitude is, at least in part, a reaction to the limited opportunities available to these young people. “When access to resources, career goals and higher education are more difficult to achieve – or are not commonly held goals – these social norms are replaced with other accomplishments, such as motherhood.”
“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 a tacit response to the choices that were available to us.” Rosella’s reception, though perhaps not so commonly echoed within her immediate community, is a conditioned response representative of the much wider stigma surrounding teenage pregnancy. “Given I grew up in a social setting where the majority of my friends were becoming mothers much younger than what is considered ‘normal’, I felt my own initial reaction was worth investigating.”
Rosella has spent the past seven years making quiet and tender portrayals of the women in her life: her twin, her stepsister, and friends new and old. Working as an antidote to the all too typical voyeurism of most projects on the subject, hers is a slower, visceral, more meandering exploration of the complexities of young motherhood. Her ongoing series 'You didn’t take away my future, you gave me a new one' focuses on the stories of three young women in particular: Nunjul, Tammara and Rowrow. For Rosella, each experience has been as fulfilling as it has tortuous.
“One of the people I’ve been photographing for the longest is Tammara”, she says. “I went to school with her, and she was often bullied because of her frizzy hair. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been involved and I honestly believe that her experiences in school strongly influenced the path she’s taken.” Tammara’s story is one that saw her leave school early and give birth to two children that were subsequently removed from her care among a cloud of depression, drugs and alcohol.
Rosella began visiting Tammara in 2011, during a third pregnancy and, though homeless and trapped in a turbulent relationship, she wondered if this child would be a catalyst for change that Tammara needed. Things took a turn for the better for a while – Tammara stopped taking drugs and Rosella photographed them celebrating her daughter’s first birthday party together. After a time though, a series of violent events with her partner led Tammara to put her daughter into the care of her mother to keep her safe, and she lost everything. She became pregnant again and this fourth child was taken away from her at birth. “Without a kiss and no goodbye they took him from her. I spent five hours with Tammara as she cried for her baby boy. I can still hear that sound.”
“Most would argue that Tammara shouldn’t have a right to be given her baby and I am in no way condoning her choices. That’s not what this is about,” Rosella adds, as she tells the story. “My argument is why we are not questioning what led her down this path in the first place. Why was she not given the support that could have changed the subsequent course of events when she was in and out of the court system and living in a tent during her pregnancy?”
An uncomfortably familiar culture of blame, often largely class-driven and ‘othering’ is echoed around the world, and Rosella’s project forces us to question the shame that is persistently placed upon young mothers as a result. “On reflection, I realised my reaction framed my sister’s pregnancy as a social problem. Instead of supporting her choice, I defaulted to the all too common assumption that becoming a mother at a young age was irresponsible and irrational. Similarly, most public discourses do not consider that becoming a mother at a young age could ever be a rational choice.” Rather than punishing young women for their situations, she offers, wouldn’t it be better to refocus the debate on the lack of opportunity or support available to young girls at critical crossroads within their lives? And why can’t we be more vocal in addressing the positives that can come from these situations, against the odds?
Rosella spends a lot of time with the women she photographs, getting to know them and becoming immersed within their lives. Her images offer us an unbiased and honest spectrum of moments universal to motherhood; there are bedrooms and birthday parties, tiredness and tears. Out of these ongoing projects, genuine, enduring relationships have emerged, and Rosella puts a specific emphasis on the value of intimate, long-term storytelling. She plans to continue to work collaboratively with each young woman indefinitely, helping to tell their stories as they unfold. “I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of photographing excessively to capture the ‘right’ image”, she says. “For these women to allow audiences into their lives, and to share their strength, isolation and struggles with strangers is a courageous act”, she says. “I have never been there just to ‘take’ their story. Often I don’t photograph at all. I am there as a friend.”
When asked, Rosella says that she doesn’t believe there is such a thing as a ‘true’ portrait, just honest interpretations of people during specific stages of their lives. Though her projects grapple with difficult and at times very painful subject matter, she is keen to express how ultimately rewarding her experiences, and the experiences of those she photographs, have been. Throughout her work and since becoming a mother herself, she explains that she has come to understand the extensive web of motivations, pressures and desires that teenage mothers have to navigate.
“The aim of my work is not to argue the oversimplified narratives of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ mothers”, she tells us, “but to challenge conventional views of young mothers through recognising the validity of their (often misunderstood and stigmatised) choices.” Presenting the photographs alongside written or audio fragments in which the women speak about their own experiences, Rosella hopes that audiences will begin to consider each woman’s personal experience, and the wider resilience of young women who share such experiences, beyond the black-and-white. “I want my work to evoke a sense of empathy that urges us to question our readiness to pass judgement, to stigmatise and to stereotype others”, she declares. “In the end, regardless of age, each mother is different and there is no ‘uniform’ type. We stand as individuals.”