New Zealand photographer Ans Westra passed away on 26 February 2023 at age 86. Here curator of photography Athol McCredie reflects on some aspects of Westra’s work.
Ans Westra was born in the Netherlands and lived in New Zealand from 1957. She settled in Wellington, working at first in a camera store. In 1962 she decided to become a full-time freelance photographer. It was a brave choice, for the prospects of making much money were slim – as the photograph below of her using a chair for a dining table in her bed-sit suggests.
Westra found assignments mainly from the School Publications Branch of the Department of Education from Te Ao Hou, a magazine issued by the Department of Maori Affairs. The Te Ao Hou work in particular gave her access into Māori communities to take the images that established her reputation.
Washday at the Pa
Westra’s first publication, Washday at the Pa, published by the School Publications Branch, catapulted her into a storm of controversy in 1964. It was a booklet for children and took a ‘day in the life’ look at a Māori family living in primitive conditions near Ruatoria. Westra wonderfully captured the warm, caring nature of the family but, along with the publisher, failed to see the political implication that Māori were happy enough living in poverty.
Undaunted by her Washday experience, Westra then embarked on a much more ambitious project she intended would counter the stereotypical tourist images of Māori with a more realistic view. This would be a lavishly produced hardcover book inspired by the famous Museum of Modern Art photo exhibition The Family of Man she had seen in Rotterdam. Like The Family of Man, Maori was a humanist work structured in a birth-to-death cycle that emphasised universal human values.
Maori was a product of an era in which it was generally assumed Māori would gradually assimilate into Pākehā society. Westra’s photographs eschewed overt social commentary or analysis, yet she was conscious of the historical value of her work in recording changing times for Māori, particularly with the migration to the city for employment and the consequent loss of culture. Though not identified in the book as such, for example, the couple out shopping in the photograph below had newly arrived in the city of Rotorua.
Notes on the Country I Live In
After completing Maori, Westra returned to the Netherlands for four years. On her way back to New Zealand she saw Robert Goodman’s 1966 photobook The Australians on a stop-over in Sydney and decided to produce her own version. This had the working title ‘The New Zealanders’ but became Notes on the Country I Live In (1972), a far more modest claim. Modesty also extended to its low production values – it was small, tightly bound, and had a crowded layout of flatly-printed images. These issues have made it an under-appreciated publication, but it is arguably Westra’s best.
Westra ranged widely in photographing for Notes. She even included a photograph of a rugby match, and despite the hundreds of thousands of rugby photographs that have been taken in this country by sports photographers, this remains one of the best. It perfectly captures the confusion of a disintegrating scrum in the late afternoon sun of a winter’s day before a crowd of thousands.
Atmospheric light also filters through the smoky air of her photograph in a racecourse bar below. The stale beer and cigarette smell of public bars of the time is almost tangible. And, as in many of Westra’s images, she has captured a moment that is more a question than an answer. What is going on between the two women? She was not sure herself, and so it is left to our imagination.
Westra was always attuned to glances, looks and gestures. You can see this in Public bar, but nowhere more so than at another race meeting where, in a clash of fashion and social values, a group of punters clearly express their feelings about the hippy-style dress of the foreground woman.
Notes does have a counter-culture and Māori flavour, reflecting Westra’s interests (and that of the publisher, Alister Taylor). Despite ranging outside her usual beat, one critic pointed to the absence of middle-class Pākehā. To which Westra replied, ‘But they are boring’. If the book was not ‘the New Zealanders’, it nevertheless captured much of the feel of New Zealand society of the 1970s.
The 1970s were a time of protest and Ans Westra was out on the streets photographing so many demonstrations that her name is often linked to protest photography. She claimed to be apolitical, but it is difficult not to imagine that she was sympathetic to many of the causes. Even so, perhaps demonstrations were mainly attractive to her for their photographic opportunities. And they offered a licence – photography was expected, no offence taken.
Most photographers’ images of demonstrations are boring shots of crowds (you had to be there). But Westra knew how to seek out interesting faces in the crowd and find telling interactions between people in close-up.
The 1970s and beyond also saw a Māori cultural renaissance. Westra was increasingly criticised by Māori. While some valued her photographs as records of their own stories, others felt that being treated as subject matter for Pākehā audiences was an extension of the colonial project. Westra responded by gradually shifting to other photographic fields.
In 1985, Westra produced Whaiora: The Pursuit of Life, an update on Maori but with text by Katarina Mataira now bringing a Māori perspective to her images. In the 1990s she embarked on a series of photographs on the sex industry in New Zealand called ‘Behind the curtains’. And in the following decade, she photographed for the book The Crescent Moon: The Asian Face of Islam in New Zealand (2009).
In the 2000s, Westra reinvented herself as a colour photographer of the landscape in her self-conceived book Ngā Tau ki Muri: Our Future (2013) on environmental degradation. She also produced large-scale prints like Blossom below. In the hands of a younger contemporary photographer, an image like this that seems straight off a chocolate box or greeting card could only be intended as ironic. But irony was never in Westra’s visual vocabulary. Standing before its metre-square presence you are overwhelmed by its innocent (naïve even), uncomplicated and uplifting joyfulness that arcs right back to the joy on baby Erua’s face as he was swung in a kete by his siblings in 1963.
The last time I saw Ans – in 2022 – she was taking photographs at her Te Awahou Nieuwe Stroom exhibition opening from her wheelchair. That makes a career spanning six decades of photographing people in candid situations. Nobody in this country matches that sort of record. With warmth, compassion, and an eye for the human moment, she persistently photographed New Zealanders in their everyday lives. It is a gift to her adoptive country that will surely keep giving back for decades and decades into the future.