Ans Westra: A Life in Photography

Paul Moon, Massey University Press, $49.99

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When Ans Westra was a small girl growing up in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, she witnessed a child being run over by a tank. She was around eight at the time—old enough to have been enlisted by the local Resistance to distribute anti-Nazi material. Her mother tried to convince her that the incident with the tank had never happened. But decades later, it remained vivid in her mind. “I can still see the picture,” she told biographer Paul Moon—a revealing choice of words. She experienced the world in photographs long before she picked up a camera.

Ans Westra: A Life in Photography is an attempt to understand a woman who preferred to remain invisible behind her ever-present Rolleiflex. Westra, who died in early 2023, is one of New Zealand’s most famous photographers, best known for black-and-white images of ordinary life in 1960s and 70s New Zealand that brim with warmth. Whether the subjects are kids playing with joyful abandon in a state-house backyard, kuia pressing their faces close in a hongi, wary middle-class onlookers at a Miss New Zealand parade or Mongrel Mob convention-goers, she had an instinct for the telling glance and gesture, the moment of connection.

So it’s surprising to learn that her photographs came from a place of deep isolation.

Westra was the only child of a fractious marriage, often alone during the war years. After her parents (right, with Ans) divorced, her mother married a man who turned out to be a paedophile, an episode Westra describes with elliptical detachment. In 1957, she travelled to New Zealand, aged 21, to join her father, who had emigrated here. He promptly announced that he had invited her only to spite his ex-wife. No wonder that during the brief period she stayed with him in Auckland, she was fascinated by the “happy, bouncy” Māori family next door: it was the kind of family she craved for herself.

This longing was the spark for the most enduring preoccupation of her career. During the 60s, Westra started photographing small Māori communities, drawn to a way of life that was increasingly under threat as Māori migrated to the cities. For years, she was the only photographer doing this kind of work—it’s one of the richest documentary archives we have of this pivotal period. But Westra’s appreciation of whānaungatanga sometimes led her to romanticise Māori poverty. Washday at the Pa, pictured at left, a publication originally created for schools, was famously destroyed after the Māori Women’s Welfare League complained that it would give students the inaccurate impression that all Māori lived (cheerfully) in primitive conditions. The question of whether a Pākehā photographer can truly represent te ao Māori is one Westra grappled with for the rest of her career, not always with introspection. (Moon, a Pākehā who has written about Māori cannibalism, child prostitution and te reo, is himself on far safer ground in this book.)

Westra died while Moon was working on the biography, and he describes it as a “mosaic” of fragments of her life, including her brief relationship with Barry Crump and a diagnosis with bipolar disorder. What emerges most clearly is that Westra used photography to bridge the distance she felt with other people. She felt uncomfortable at parties without a camera to mediate social interactions; she loved to photograph children but by her own admission could be a distant mother. Days before she died, Moon remarked to Westra that parts of her life remained mysterious. “Good!” she replied, staunchly unknowable not only to her biographer but also perhaps to herself.

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