A succinct interview with photographer Ans Westra, whose new book Nga Tau ki Muri: Our Future looks at New Zealand’s environment through 20 years of images.
David Alsop, the 77-year-old’s business partner and gallerist, explains to Lumière why Washday at the Pa’s photographer is an icon. “She’s an Arts Foundation Icon Artist responsible for the most comprehensive documentation of Maori culture over 55 years of significant political and social change.” Why is Ans work special? “Her ability to reveal things about ourselves that we hadn’t noticed and in some cases preferred not to see.” Westra answered Lumière’s questions with Dutch concision.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: What’s been the best/worst change in Maori culture?
ANS WESTRA: Best—Maori Renaisance and accepted use of Te Reo. Worst—Boredom and short attention span, which shows amongst the young people.
AB: How was it visiting Ruatoria half a century on?
AW: We noticed many changes. The town now seems to be populated mainly by women, children, and old people. The men are working elsewhere to support their families and might only be able to return sporadically.
AB: Photos of the Te Runa whanau tamariki in their dilapidated Ruatoria house were pulped after a scandal. How was it visiting members of the Te Runa whanau now?
AW: Going back they recognised me immediately and were very happy to make me welcome. They were proud to have been featured and were asking me what the controversy had been all about.
AB: Is there a subject/image from Washday at the Pa you feel particular enduring affection towards?
AW: Several, the swinging in the basket and the doll made from washing, for instance.
AB: Tell me about a landscape in Nga Tau ki Muri: Our Future you have a lot of aroha for?
AW: Perhaps the dancing pony on the tip site with a Poison laid sign. Not so much a landscape, but an image with a lot of things to think about.
AB: The Tuwhare poems in your book are powerful. How has he influenced you as a photographer?
AW: Even just by being Maori.
AB: You note Geoff Park’s essential influence on this book. Could you elaborate?
AW: He taught me about New Zealand and it’s devastating development.
AB: I like the kaupapa David Lange gave you in ’87, “My country can become the pioneer of a new style of nation where people are honoured for their creativity and tolerance… where there is contentment among people and empathy with the sea and landscape.” Where is today’s David Lange? (Don’t tell me Russel Norman.)
AW: If anyone, Shane Jones, but have you got an answer here?
AB: “What gives us the right to alter the landscape, cut down our hills and exploit our waterways?” you poignantly ask. Your opening photo of a ruined hill is striking. I think the world is probably doomed environmentally. You?
AW: We are at the very point of NO RETURN. Of course it is not possible to undo the damage humans have caused quickly, but we now need to at least start thinking.
AB: Other favourite photos of mine from the book include the striking “private property” pair. This brings to mind the great Woody Guthrie song ‘This Land’? Verse Four: “Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me. A sign was painted said: private property.” This song resonates for you?
AW: I can see why it might appeal!
AB: How do you feel about photography’s impact in an era where we are awash in trivial iPhone and Instagram shots?
AW: People are very literate pictorially and contrary to popular belief not everyone is greedy and stupid. Nothing is trivial insofar as whanau is concerned, privacy has become more of an issue these days.
AB: What could the Netherlands learn from New Zealand? I guess our landscape was one of the things that kept you here in New Zealand.
AW: No, the freedom in being away from restrictions imposed by family and the overcrowding now in Holland. But New Zealand should learn from the Netherlands how to create a stable economy and how to live with nature harmoniously.
AB: Any comment on foreign buying of our land?
AW: No foreigner can own land in China and what do we do?
AB: What do Maori people tell you about the buying of Papatuanuku?
AW: When you talk to Maori about these issues you find that despite the settlements concluded recently land going into foreign hands is another thing altogether. The selling means that local people will never have the resources to buy the land back.