Ans Westra’s Photos Captured a Changing Nation
Ans Westra, a Dutch-born photographer who created the most comprehensive record of New Zealand’s social history, comprising more than 300,000 powerful images, died on 26 February at her home outside Wellington. She was 86. Australia-based journalist Natasha Frost looks back on Westra’s life for an obituary published by The New York Times.
From her arrival in New Zealand more than six decades ago until the end of her life, Westra chronicled the lives of her compatriots with unflinching determination in frames that were praised for their realism and spontaneity. The subjects of her Rolleiflex camera typically fell outside the white conservative New Zealand mainstream, including Māori, Frost writes.
Her wide-ranging focus sometimes led her into controversy.
Washday at the Pa, her 1964 book about a rural Māori family with nine children living in poverty, was to be distributed in New Zealand schools. But it became a “political football”, as she would later describe it, and all 38,000 copies were recalled, and many were pulped, after the Māori Women’s Welfare League said that the images cast Māori in an unfair and unflattering light.
Yet Ray Ahipene-Mercer, whose mother had campaigned against the book, said Westra’s images possessed a rare candour, and that the controversy had been an early example of “what is now universal in Māori circles – ‘nothing about us without us.’”
“She saw us,” Ahipene-Mercer said at a memorial service for Westra in Wellington, “and reflected us back on ourselves.”
She celebrated what she saw as her valuable outsider’s gaze – one that gave her distance, even as it later led to criticism.
“I can understand where they are coming from, their questioning it. Why I am the one who has the validity to document them?” she said of her photographs of Māori in an Art New Zealand interview. “I find that being an outsider gives you a clearer vision, but I can understand that questioning of whether my approach the right one.”
Original article by Natasha Frost, The New York Times, March 8, 2023.
Photo by Ans Westra.