We learnt with sorrow and regret that photographer and educator Tony Whincup passed away recently. Tony photographed periodically in the remote islands of the Pacific nation of Kiribati over four decades, creating an extensive photographic documentation of its people and their culture. Te Papa purchased 47 of Tony’s photographs on Kiribati dance in 2005, and at the time of his death was making a much larger selection from Tony’s life’s work on Kiribati for the collection. The following tribute was written by Teresia Teaiwa, lecturer in the Pacific Studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington. She is of Kiribati and Banaban heritage and came to know Tony through their shared research interests and family connections to Kiribati.
It was with great sadness that I received the news that retired Massey University Professor Tony Whincup had passed away on 2 April 2015. I met Tony Whincup for the first time in 2004, but I had known of his work for much longer. I encountered his stunning photographic representations of the independent island republic of Kiribati for the first time in his book Nareau’s Nation: A Portrait of the Gilbert Islands (1979) when I visited my ancestral homeland in 1990. That book has been a prized item in my family’s library ever since; not only because it reflects images of a cultural heritage of which we are proud, but because it is an insightful portrait of a nation at a historical crossroads. Whincup always managed to capture both the enduring and the changing facets of Kiribati life in his photography. Stored in national archives, disseminated through magazines, tourist promotional material, and his many other books, Whincup’s photographic work has played a crucial role in reflecting a national culture and identity in which I-Kiribati can take pride.
Based on an almost four decade-long relationship with Kiribati, the images that are now Whincup’s legacy emerged from an enviably informed position. Whincup and his wife and research partner Joan were both born in the United Kingdom and had lived previously in Uganda. They arrived in the British colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (now Kiribati and Tuvalu) in 1976 where Tony headed the art department at King George V School. It was there at ‘KGV’ that Whincup came to mentor one of Kiribati’s few contemporary photographers and artists, Teweiariki Teaero, whose work later came to prominence through the University of the South Pacific, under the aegis of the late Epeli Hau‘ofa’s Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture. In 1984 the Whincups relocated to New Zealand where Tony was soon appointed as Head of Photography at the then Wellington Polytechnic. The Polytechnic later become Massey University, and he contributed significantly to the university’s reputation in Wellington as a creative and innovative hub, especially through his establishment of and leadership in the School of Visual and Material Culture. He also played an active role in supporting the Pasifika network of staff at Massey, as well as keeping a keen eye on Pasifika student welfare at Massey’s Wellington campus. Such a combination of professional drive and community-building is all too rare among academics, but was simply an extension of Whincup’s modus operandi as a researcher.
With their Montana Book Award-winning Akekeia! Traditional Dance in Kiribati (2001) the Whincups accomplished what anthropologists might describe as ‘thick description’. The photographs gave both a sense of the context and the detail of dance culture, and were further enhanced by a selection of insightful quotes sourced from the extensive research the Whincups have done in I-Kiribati communities, to provide a richly layered portrayal. I know of very few others working in the Pacific who are using the critical methodology that the Whincups have developed combining anthropology, art and documentary photography. This methodology was also evident in Tony’s exhibition at Pataka, Porirua in 2004 titled ‘Te Wa’. In an article on this exhibition which I co-wrote for the New York-based periodical Art Asia Pacific we noted:
Tony Whincup had designed the exhibition in the hope that viewers would form their first impressions with the still photographs, visit the moving images to get a better sense of the social and cultural context, and then revisit the stills with a deeper appreciation. But there was not a clear dichotomy between the still and moving images: it was not that the moving images had more information than the stills; or that the moving images spoke while the stills were silent. Mirroring and echoing the technique he used in his lush portrayal of Kiribati dance in Akekeia! …‘Te Wa’ was conscientiously multi-vocal.
This commitment to multi-vocality, or sharing authority with the people he was representing is what sheltered Whincup from the type of confrontation with anti-colonial or nationalist sentiment that scholars and artists alike have faced when working across cultures. I have not yet met an I-Kiribati person who expresses a dislike or resentment of Whincup’s work, which is testament to his integrity and the strong foundation of relationships on which his oeuvre is based.
In 2008 Whincup’s singular contribution to recording and representing Kiribati in images was recognized by the government of Kiribati when he was awarded the Kiribati Order of Merit. A year later, the President of Kiribati himself contributed a foreword to Whincup’s most recent book, Bwai ni Kiribati, and the publication was launched in Tarawa by the Vice-President of the country. Many researchers would envy the warmth with which both ordinary I-Kiribati and their national leaders have embraced Whincup. Whincup was certainly not content to exploit or recycle the material he had collected from over 30 years of association with Kiribati, but renewed and refreshed his archive with regular return visits and new fieldwork. His loss will be felt by so many—but none more so than Joan and the family. May they be consoled in the knowledge that Tony’s legacy is treasured. Ko na tekeraoi n am boborau, Ten Tony. Ko bati n rabwa n am bwai n tangira nakoira ni kabane. — Teresia Teaiwa