Ans Westra, photographer (1936–2023)

Ans Westra, photographer (1936–2023)

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.

A black and white portrait of a woman looking at the camera with her head in her left hand, and her right hand holding the wrist of her left hand.
Adrienne Martyn, Ans Westra, Wellington, 1987. From the series: ‘Artist’s portraits’, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print, 1987, Wellington. Te Papa (O.003817)

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.

A woman is sitting on the floor with her dinner in front of her on a chair. She has her legs through the chair legs. She is surrounded by furniture and is looking at the camera.
Ans Westra attributed, Family members, Stokes Valley; Ans Westra at home, Allenby Tce, Wellington, 1964. Westra, Ans, 1936-: Photographs. Ref: AWM-0871-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, New Zealand. /records/36384485. Courtesy Suite gallery

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.

A black and white photo of a kitchen with a young toddler istting and laughing in a woven carrying basket (kete). The basket is being held in the air and swung by two older children.
From Washday at the Pa. Ans Westra, Ruatoria, 1963. From the portfolio: PhotoForum – Ans Westra, 1963, gelatin silver print. Purchased 1985 with New Zealand Lottery Board funds. Te Papa (O.003535)


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.

A book cover of several children looking down at a camera. It's in colour and has the word 'Maori' on the top-left.
Cover of Maori, by Ans Westra, with text by James Ritchie. Wellington: Reed, 1967

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.

A young couple are looking in a shop window. The man is carrying a toddler on his right hip and there is another child standing in front of the shop window.
From the book Maori. Ans Westra, Young couple, window shopping, Rotorua, 1963, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print. Te Papa (O.039578)

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.

A woman in a fur-trimmed coat and fur hat stands and looks just off to the left of the camera. There are people either side of her and behind her. One of the other people also has a fur hat and fur coat on.
Cover image of Notes on the Country I Live In. Ans Westra, Crowd, Cuba Mall, Wellington. From: The New Zealanders portfolio, 1971, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print. Te Papa (O.002556)

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.

A football field with a full grandstand obscured by sun haze has two rugby teams in a scrum. One man is standing with his arm up sheilding his eyes from the sun.
From Notes on the Country I Live In. Ans Westra, British Lions versus All Blacks, Athletic Park, Wellington, 1971. Purchased 2012. Te Papa (O.039589)

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.

Two women are seated at a table with drinks and beer jugs in front of them. There are four men standing at a bar table behind them.
From Notes on the Country I Live In. Ans Westra, Public bar, Trentham Racecourse, Upper Hutt, 1971, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print. Purchased 2012. Te Papa (O.039598)

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.

A woman in a long dress with long hair is standing in the foreground looking off out of frame. Ther are two men and a woman standing behind her, turned to look at her.
From Notes on the Country I Live In. Ans Westra, Trotting, Addington Racecourse, Christchurch, 1971, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print. Te Papa (O.039597)

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.

A man with longish hair and sideburns, wearing a hat and leather jacket, has one arm around a blonde woman leaning against his chest and smiling, and one hand in the air displaying the peace sign of two fingers up and facing forward.
From Notes on the Country I Live In. Ans Westra, Rock concert, Christchurch, 1971, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print. Te Papa (O.039586)


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.

Black and white photo of a crowd of people wearing raincoats all looking in one direction. It is raining and some people in the background are obscured by umbrellas.
Ans Westra, Arrival of the Maori land march on Parliament grounds 1975. 1975, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print. Purchased 1985 with New Zealand Lottery Board funds. Te Papa (O.003398)

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.

Later Work

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).

A woman with arms spread and wearing a corset and tights in a changing room. There is another woman in a white top and short skirt tying the corset of the woman in front.
Ans Westra, [Woman with arms spread in a changing room. From the ‘Behind the curtains’ series], 1990s, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print. Te Papa (O.042891)
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.

Pink and white flowers and green leaves on the end of a branch. There is blue sky in the background.
Ans Westra. Blossom, 2008, colour photograph, inkjet print. Te Papa (O.040411)

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.

A woman in a light blue jacket and a bright blue t-shirt looks at the camera. She is standing in front of a very blue wall and holding a medium-format Rolleiflex camera.
Ans Westra by Grant Sheehan, 1986. Photo courtesy of Grant Sheehan


  1. Thankyou this piece was useful. I learnt something new .

  2. Ans “captured” the 60s to 80s period in New Zealand in brilliant ways….her photography during that time was honest ,true and unforgettable.

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