An early morning drive to photograph landscape in the Uruti valley led Tony Carter to Another World.
The Taranaki portrait photographer kept driving and found himself in Ohura, 130 kilometres northeast of Stratford.
"I stopped in the main street and saw a shop there that was full of secondhand things - a shop that never opened."
Carter started talking to the people in the township. "They were quite interesting characters, so I asked if I could photograph them and they told me about an old lady who was 86, who lived around the corner and still rides a pushbike."
He photographed her and then met a couple living in a house truck. "They were very open and friendly and had so much character. Within half an hour the women allowed me to photograph her naked - she was keen to show off her tattoos. From there, in my mind, I thought there was a different side to this place."
And so began his obsession with the people of Ohura and the planned exhibition, Another World - Portraits from Ohura.
"I've been there 30 times in the last year," Carter says.
However, it did take time for many of the town's 130 inhabitants to warm to him. "A lot of people, to start with, didn't trust me because they thought I was an under-cover cop."
During his visits, Carter says he had doors slammed in his face, was told to go away in not-so-polite words and once was even shut in a house by a man.
But he quietly persisted; meeting people without judgment, listening to their stories and making them feel comfortable about being photographed.
"The majority of them have had really hard lives. They are just people whose circumstances have led them there," says Carter. He grew up in Stratford so felt a connection with the once-thriving rural township.
In the 1960s, about 650 people lived in the coal-mining town, which even had its own movie theatre.
But the closure of the coal mine, economic downturn and constant flooding of the low-lying town built beside the Waitewhena Stream saw the population of Ohura dwindle.
Through his camera lens, Carter has captured the essence of this place through its people.
"To me it was almost like a magical place - like another world. Even though people didn't seem to have much in a way of things, they were still happy," he says.
"Many people go there to get away from society, but they are still community-based - they support each other."
In most parts of New Zealand, technological advances have brought people closer together in terms of communication but that's not so in Ohura. "There, they are becoming more isolated. They are even having trouble getting water there now and power, because the line rentals keep going up. You can't get a building consent for there now."
The photographic project has left Carter feeling both humbled about his own life and privileged because the people of Ohura had let him into theirs.
"Most people are proud of who they are. I felt the people there were quite creative in their own way and happy with their own company. They were real."
Carter has been named New Zealand Photographer of the Year five times - in 2000, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2010. In 2010, he also became the first Grand Master of the New Zealand Institute of Professional Photographers.
The Another World exhibition will be held in the main exhibition gallery at Puke Ariki from September 6 to November 23.
Its is one of two exhibitions opening at Puke Ariki on Friday.
The second exhibition, Precious Cargo, looks at waka huia (treasure boxes), which are small wooden chests made to store and safeguard precious objects.
Tim Wigmore takes the traditional Maori waka huia form and reworks it in new ways to look at the connection between vessels and the objects they contain. There will be an artist demonstration and discussion on November 22, with Wigmore in a conversation with carver Lyonel Grant about working together on this exhibition.
- Taranaki Daily News
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