Ans Westra is one of New Zealand’s finest social and documentary photographers. Since arriving in New Zealand from Holland in 1957, ‘she has consistently and uncompromisingly recorded precise, unposed, and often beautiful, images of New Zealanders going about the business of living’ (1).
Westra was born in Leiden, Holland in 1936 and qualified as an arts and crafts teacher from a specialised polytechnic in Rotterdam. In 1954 Westra began taking photographs as a hobby, inspired by The Family of Man exhibition by American photographer Eugene Smith. In 1957, aged twenty-one, Westra arrived in New Zealand to visit her father, who had earlier immigrated to this country.
Westra had her first photographs published in 1960 – two covers for Te Ao Hou, a magazine published by the Department of Maori Affairs. In 1961 Westra, aged twenty-five, began work as a freelance photojournalist, much of her work being for the School Publications branch of the Department of Education.
It was around this time that Westra began to photograph the images of Maori, for which she is probably best known today. Initially these images were for a book on the Maori people. The book, Maori, took five years to produce and was published in 1966. Says Westra, ‘of all the different people who were living in New Zealand I was most attracted to the Maori because they were the most open and had so much that excited me, inspired me to photograph them. There were also other customs and differences that interested me’ (2).
In 1964 Westra found herself at the centre of controversy over her school bulletin Washday at the Pa. This bulletin about a day in the life of a rural Maori family of eight children, sparked a national debate on how Maori should be depicted.
The Maori Women’s Welfare League condemned Westra’s depiction of the poor, rural Maori family living in sub-standard housing as untruthful and inaccurate. They feared Pakeha children would ridicule their Maori counterparts after reading the bulletin. The Minister of Education withdrew the bulletin, though it was later published privately. Westra staunchly defended the integrity of her photographs, which gained praise from many teachers, officials, sections of the media and members of the public.
Ironically, though Washday at the Pa caused quite a ruckus, Westra found the experience of taking the photographs for this publication highly enjoyable and satisfying. ‘That was just a marvellous set of circumstances. Everything worked out right for me. The whole book was photographed in only a few hours. You get situations like that every now and then, where you know that everything is right, that the people are quite natural and lots of things are happening and you take photographs at just the right moment’ (3).
Despite her interest in Maori people and their culture, some critics have accused Westra of romanticising them. ‘The Charles Goldie of the sixties?’, asked one reviewer, commenting on ‘a problem of cuteness’ in Westra's earlier works.
In 1967, Westra returned to her native Holland, intent on gaining a foothold in the Dutch photographic industry. However, she lacked what was regarded as the necessary education and returned to New Zealand in 1971.
Westra went on to produce several works, including Notes On The Country I Live In (1972), Wellington City Alive (1976) and Whaiora (1986). In 1986 she also won the Commonwealth Photography Award for her portfolio of six pictures of elderly people.
Westra’s subject matter and style have altered little throughout her career. She works almost exclusively in black and white, and has used the same twin lens Rolleiflex camera for the past thirty years. ‘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. And there’s the fact that I am a woman’ (4).
Today, Westra continues to document the lives of New Zealanders on film from her home base in the Hutt Valley. Her work continues the long tradition of documentary photography in this country, that was started by such well-known photographers as the Burton Brothers.
(1) Saker, John. (1986). City Interview: Ans Westra. Wellington City Magazine: April
(2) Saker. (1986). p 22.
(3) Saker. (1986). p 21
(4) Saker. (1986). p 21.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database.