Ans Westra

‘If people didn’t want me to take the photograph they would chase me away.’

– Ans Westra

Ans Westra, interviewed by curator Athol McCredie, 2012


AW: I’ve never been particularly interested even in photographing people because they’re famous. It doesn’t work for me.

AM: So what are you looking for, then?

AW: The communication between people and the right moment. Catching a moment in full swing.

AM: But a moment that says what?

AW: That sums up an emotion. That one in the pub was very poignant [Public bar, Trentham Racecourse, Upper Hutt, 1971 – see slideshow]. They were crying, or one of them was crying. And the other one’s comforting her. Whether it’s a personal crisis, or whether she’s just lost all her housekeeping money, I don’t know. Could have lost a bet at the pub in Trentham. And I caught the moment.

Nobody minded that I used them for a photograph. I mean, some of these things are a bit harder to do nowadays.

AM: So did you exchange any words? How do these things operate?

AW: No, I just wandered, I took a photo, I smiled, and I walked away again. If people didn’t want me to take the photo, they would chase me away. I didn’t do it obtrusively or secretly.

AM: So you didn’t check with people if it was OK to use their photos?

AW: No, I didn’t. And I found when I did do Whaiora, Katerina Mataira felt that everybody in the book should be asked permission. And I started with the old Solomon lady who was leading an action song in Parliament grounds, and she said, ‘God no, you can’t use that, I look fat.’ And I thought, well, I’m not going further on this one, that’s crazy.

And also I photographed Sophie Carr for instance up on the coast in her vegetable patch, that’s in Maori, and when the book came out, her neighbour Bentley came running and said, ‘You’re in a book, you’re in a book!’ And then she said, ‘Why didn’t you take your apron off?’ Sophie said, ‘Hmph.’ 

AM: For your 1972 book, Notes on the Country I Live In, your working title was ‘The New Zealanders’. Why did you change it?

AW: I think [publisher] Alister [Taylor] and I came together on it.

AM: Why did you pick that?

AW: Because it was right. It works as a title. The pictures are notes or whatever. No, I’m perfectly happy with that.

AM: ‘The New Zealanders’ is a big grand statement, isn’t it? It’s like Brian Brake.

AW: Yeah, I know. And this is much more intimate. But that’s what the book was.

AM: Because I do contrast this with Brian Brake’s Gift of the Sea, just in the size of the book, and the grandeur if you like. And his has a lot of expansive landscapes.

AW: Every picture on the pedestal. I simply didn’t want to do that. I wanted it to be intimate, a book that people would leaf through and gradually the images would work on them. But if you have a coffee table book, it’s much more prestigious. But I didn’t need that any more. I’d done Maori, and even Maori is not directly that sort of a book.

AM: The other thing about the title is it’s kind of tentative. It’s not ‘This is New Zealand,’ it’s ‘Here’s some notes on the country which I live in.’ That’s what it’s sort of saying?

AW: Yeah. It’s my world and whatever.


This excerpt is from a conversation for the book The New Photography, available at Te Papa Store on Level 1.