Ans Westra is the most significant New Zealand documentary photographer of the second half of the twentieth century. Her photographs are synonymous with the way we as New Zealanders understand ourselves, our past and our present. Her work is sensitive in its depiction of humanity, particularly children, and is sometimes courageous, as Westra took personal risks when documenting New Zealand’s sex trade and gang culture. Westra was born in 1936 in Leiden, a Dutch university town on the Rhine. In 1953 she moved to Rotterdam, a city still recovering from the German bombs of the Second World War, to study at the trade school for girls. She graduated with a teaching diploma in the unlikely speciality of “artistic needlework.” Her obsession with capturing the world through a camera was instilled after encountering the famous Family of Man exhibition in Amsterdam. This utopian, quasi-anthropological exhibition, curated by MoMA’s Edward Steichen, toured the world from 1955 to 1963, and was a major influence on Westra’s work, as was precocious teenager Joan van der Keuken’s 1955 photobook Wij Zijn 17 (We Are 17), which depicts the lives of post-war Dutch youth.
After she graduated in 1957, Westra voyaged to New Zealand, where her biological father had emigrated. Westra took jobs at the Crown Lynn factory and several local photography studios, and later joined the Wellington Camera Club where she honed her skills and eye. The tall, blonde Dutch girl, an outsider, learned to be invisible and observe with her twin lens Rolleiflex, like her contemporary, the American Mark Cohen. In a 1986 Wellington City Magazine interview she told John Saker, “It’s a waist-level camera…you don’t put it up to your eyes, so you don’t obscure your own vision. People are not nearly so aware of a little box at waist level, so you don’t interrupt your own interaction with the scene, and I interact as little as possible…. people seem to forget about me really.” This invisibility enables the candid intimacy with the subject and the compositions defined by human relationships which are characteristic of Westra’s work. The viewer never feels intrusive or a voyeur to the story of the photo.
In 1960, her ambition and hard work paid off, and Westra was awarded a prize by UK Photography magazine. Two years later, she began full time work as a freelance photographer for the Department of Education’s School Publications Branch (publisher of the School Journal), as well as the Māori social and news magazine Te Ao Hou, put out by the Department of Internal Affairs. This placed her in direct contact with many of the country’s leading writers and artists and, by hitchhiking around the country, with many Māori. Modern Māori life became a fascination that would stay with Westra throughout her career and inform much of her work. Émigré artists and writers in New Zealand, particularly the Dutch and Indo-Dutch, were often attracted to Māori culture as something intriguingly different and, like themselves, on the margins of Anglo-Celtic Pākehā society. In this respect, Westra was following in the footsteps of artists like Theo Schoon.
In 1964, Westra’s interest in Māori life resulted in the creation of Washday at the Pa, a book published by the Department of Education for primary schools, depicting an ordinary day in the life of a Māori family with eight children in Ruatōria. The humble and very basic circumstances she unflinchingly recorded sparked the concerns of the Māori Women’s Welfare League, who felt its depiction of rural Māori reflected unfairly on a whole people and would reinforce received Pākehā stereotypes about Māori. There was also concern that the title was misleading, as the family didn’t live in a communal Pā, but rather a privately-owned cottage. The entire run was withdrawn from classrooms by the Department of Education and pulped, though it was later published privately. The incident was a watershed moment, arousing much debate around the ethics of how Pākehā culture depicts and understands Māoridom.
Westra continued to send her work overseas, earning a Certificate of Excellence from the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. Buoyed by this and the publication of Māori in 1967, she returned to the Netherlands intending to get further training in order to break into commercial photography there. Ultimately frustrated in this endeavour, she came back to New Zealand in 1971 where her work once more shone an iconic light on our times and people. For Westra, New Zealand was now home. Other publications, exhibitions and projects followed, and in 1982 the National Library of New Zealand established a permanent archive for Westra’s work, acknowledging her significance in telling the ongoing story of the country.
In 1986 Westra was the Pacific regional winner of the prestigious Commonwealth Photography Award. This was followed throughout the 1990s by travel around Asia, Europe and the US, interspersed with exhibitions and teaching, and culminating in a year-long stint in her native Netherlands. In 1998 Westra’s work was recognised by the New Zealand government when Westra was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to photography. Among her many other accolades, 2004-2005 saw Westra the subject of a major touring survey exhibition Handboek: Ans Westra Photographs and in 2007 she was granted an Arts Foundation Icon Award. From her home in the Hutt Valley she continues to document New Zealand as it unfolds and evolves, most recently taking an interest in changing national demographics and human impact on the environment.
The works available in this exhibition represent the full, diverse gamut of that rich career, from the infamous Washday at the Pa to a portrait of fiery poet-prophet James K. Baxter, as well as the lives of urban Māori, the Waitangi Day protests, and the anti-Springbok rugby tour protests of 1981. These snapshots of New Zealand history are powerful and profound, but just as poignant are the sweetly sentimental portraits of children here in New Zealand, around the Pacific and in the Philippines. These works reveal Ans Westra’s concentrated consistency of interests and themes, and above all her unshakable humanitarian love of people. In her works, we recognise ourselves, and this is what makes them so compelling and universal.