Documentary photographer Cameron McLaren specialises in talking his way into places that are off-limits to most. First of all, it was Gloriavale, the closed religious community on the West Coast of the South Island. After gaining the trust of leader Hopeful Christian, McLaren visited multiple times in 2014 to photograph its inhabitants and their daily routines.
At the same time, McLaren was attempting to find a way into another group which has largely avoided the direct gaze of the press: the New Zealand Police. “It took over two years for me to get in with the Police, to show any work that they were doing,” he says. “I’d say it was a solid 9 out of 10 on the difficulty scale.
“One day I just went up to an officer on the street and had a chat to her, and she ended up being incredibly helpful. It just goes to show that sometimes the most obvious tactic is the one that works.”
By early 2016, McLaren was in on the action, joining the National Crime Intelligence Unit to observe a drug bust at a Wellington property. “We sat there as an armed offenders squad went into the house first—we could hear the door kicked in, and screaming and shouting as we waited for it to be cleared.”
Leads also came from acquaintances and people as McLaren struck up conversations on the street. The image that graces the cover of this issue is “a friend of a friend of a friend,” he says. “I went into a public toilet with this guy and photographed him smoking. It wasn’t glorious or dramatic. He insisted on being completely anonymous—there’s a lot of risk involved.”
Gaining access to people’s clandestine habits requires complete transparency on McLaren’s behalf. He says he’s careful to explain his intentions and ideas, and show subjects frames in the back of his camera as he photographs. That’s what allows the barriers to drop, he adds. “That’s what I’m all about: trying to get access to worlds that people don’t get to see.”