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Westra retraces her journey of 50 years ago

Last updated 05:00 27/01/2013
Ans Westra
Maarten Holl/Fairfax NZ
Life behind the lens: Ans Westra is retracing her 1960s journey during which she photographed how Maori lived.

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Half a century after celebrated photographer Ans Westra first toured the backroads of the North Island, she is about to hit the road again.

Back in the 1960s she drove her Volkswagen Beetle to remote Maori communities to capture enduring images on her trusty Rolleiflex film camera, and sleeping in the car.

This time she will be taking a modern digital camera, travelling in a more comfortable campervan and taking with her a selection of the best images she captured 50 years ago.

Westra will be travelling to Ruatoria, Ruatoki, Rotorua and Whanganui, retracing journeys she took when she was in her early 20s, visiting marae, attending hui, tangi and weddings.

Westra, 76, who migrated from the Netherlands in 1957, remembers being drawn to photographing Maori and capturing their way of life.

"At the time nobody apart from the Government Tourist Bureau was photographing Maori and they presented them as oddities for tourists, but they never showed how Maori really lived."

Shortly after she came to Wellington she joined the Ngati Poneke Young Maori Club. She began taking photos of club activities and preparations for the opening of Waiwhetu Marae in Lower Hutt.

Her candid and lively shots published in Te Ao Hou, the Department of Maori Affairs magazine, were very different from the stiff lineups it had been running up until then, and word of her interest and talent spread.

Westra remembers people at marae referring to her as "the Pakeha photographer". She made several lengthy trips to the East Coast and up the Whanganui River to get photos for her first big book, Maori.

But she made her biggest splash with a smaller project, a school reader called Washday at the Pa.

Photos of the Te Runa family children in their rundown Ruatoria home caused such a furore that the Ministry of Education was ordered to pulp the booklet.

Fortunately, the images survived and are now part of an extraordinary historical record of more than 200,000 of Westra's negatives in the National Archives in Wellington.

Westra is modestly proud of her legacy - she never thought it would be such an important record of its time. But she is also delighted that many precious images of people and times past hang in so many meeting houses and homes.

As well as showing her work on her journey, Westra and her agent David Alsop hope to gather names and other information to supplement the photos held in the National Archives.

She will be taking more photos, which will give a unique perspective of how communities have changed.

Alsop, who describes Westra as a living icon, said it would be interesting to see who they met along the way.

"I'm expecting there will be many stories and memories shared.

"Getting into schools and meeting those interested in photography will also be a special part of the trip," he said.

The road trip is scheduled to be in Gisborne and Ruatoria on February 4-10, Bay of Plenty and Ruatoki on February 11-16, Rotorua on February 18-23, and Whanganui on February 25-March 1.

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