War photographer ‘shocked’ by issues confronting Australia’s rural communities

It was a phone call Richard Mosse didn't expect. The internationally acclaimed, New-York-based photographer was being invited by a small NGO in the NSW rural town of Moree to head to Australia and work with Raphaela Rosella, a local photojournalist, to shine a light on the social issues afflicting the community.

Mosse, famous for tipping established photojournalism on its head through eclectic and powerful visual storytelling, said what he discovered in Australia "shocked" him.

Young rebels from Alliance des Patriotes pour un Congo Libre et Souverain from the series Infra. <cite>Photo: Richard Mosse</cite>
Young rebels from Alliance des Patriotes pour un Congo Libre et Souverain from the series Infra. Photo: Richard Mosse

"I am a little shocked, in all honesty, about how badly Australia's disadvantaged communities have been left behind by the country's social services – they seem to have been forgotten – while affluent Australians numb themselves with television shows about cookery and home improvement," Mosse tells Fairfax Media.

Mosse is no stranger to upheaval or human suffering. The Irish photographer recently made headlines for using a military-grade thermal camera to document the journeys of refugees fleeing war and persecution across Europe, the Middle East and Africa in a series called Heat Maps.

Before that, Mosse gained international acclaim documenting civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo for his series Infra. He used discontinued infrared film that made his images seem as if they were taken in a surreal, alien world in which landscapes were a sea of pinks and reds.

Mosse's work is essentially journalistic but seeks to focus on timeworn issues in a new visual format.

Beyond Empathy – a small but multiple-award-winning NGO that is based in Armidale and works in Moree – made the call to Mosse. Beyond Empathy uses art to influence the conversation about social issues, and works to transform the lives of people experiencing disadvantage in NSW.

"We were over the moon when Richard said yes to our offer to bring him out here to work alongside Raphaela," executive director Kim McConville says. "We are working to change the lives of some of our country's most forgotten-about communities. We are proud that 90 per cent of the people we work with are Aboriginal, and more than 70 per cent of our core team are Aboriginal artists and cultural workers.

"These problems are swept under the rug or just ignored in Australia. We get so caught up with the issues facing our big cities we miss what happens in these smaller communities. If people were aware of the situation we have, they would be shocked and wonder how this could be the Australia we live in."

Moree Plains Shire Council was the state's worst offender in terms of non-domestic violent assault and robbery in 2016, out of 139 local government areas with populations greater than 3000. Moree was also second in the state in for domestic violence assault figures.

Mosse says government has "failed" communities like Moree.

"These communities are overlooked by the Department of Social Services, which has failed them; are victimised by the police; and are scorned and discriminated against by privileged Australians. They seem to live in an endless cycle of poverty, domestic violence, addiction, and imprisonment."

Katrina Humphries, mayor of Moree Plains Shire Council, says the area has been "under-resourced to blazes" by government. 

"These figures are not to be proud of and we are not hiding from these serious problems in the community," Humphries says.

"A lot of great work is being done to combat these issues, including in terms of social work, women's refuges and police engagement, but we have a real problem of decision-makers not being part of this community and not living here but making the decisions. When you have people that fly in and fly out you have dysfunction. We need more resources."

For Rosella, who has spent nine years documenting the Moree community, working alongside Mosse was unforgettable.

"My work mainly spans across two communities: my hometown of Nimbin, and Moree. When I first became a participant with Beyond Empathy over 10 years ago, they would often take me to Moree to give me a break from a violent relationship I was in as a teenager. Although both towns are very different I noticed similarities; limited opportunities for young people, boredom and chaos but a strong sense of community, love, longing and belonging," Rosella says.

"I am very grateful for the opportunity Beyond Empathy created with Richard."

The body of work produced by both photographers will be shown across Australia, but the spaces are yet to be chosen.