Photgrapher's passion born out of Africa

CHRIS GARDNER
Last updated 05:00 29/10/2012

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Growing up in the African Congo, and the child of a photography-mad, missionary father meant Bruce Mercer was always going to choose between animals and taking pictures.

"In the Congo I used to have all sorts of pets. Monkeys, bush babies, deer and antelope," he said. The Waikato Times photographer was named last Thursday as New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year 2012 for his photographs of the country's worst maritime environmental disaster - the cargo ship Rena that ran aground on Astrolabe Reef off Tauranga.

"I only have two cats now," Mr Mercer said.

"We used to always have slide shows of pictures Dad had taken when he was stationed in Congo from 1955 until the 1970s on the banks of Lake Mweru. He documented the people, the life and times of everything that was going on, scenes. We used to say ‘oh God, not another one' but now I look back on it with pride. I have thousands of Dad's slides, 8mm films, 16mm films in a trunk."

His father was Dr Bill Mercer, a missionary doctor sent with his wife, Nan, by the Bible Society of New Zealand to help with the medical needs of Congalese locals.

Mr Mercer, 49, was born in New Zealand when his parents were on furlough from the mission field during political unrest, but the family of five soon went back to Lake Mweru.

"We, and a family of Belgian mission-aries, were the only white faces there.

"When I was 10 we moved down to Rhodesia and I was there until I was about 17," Mr Mercer said.

Returning to New Zealand for good, settling in Auckland, Mr Mercer decided he wanted to be a vet and studied zoology at Massey University, but ended up not completing his studies because a holiday job at his brother's engineering firm in Auckland proved more attractive. There Mr Mercer was involved in the creation of prototype agricultural machinery as a fitter/fabricator.

"I ended up staying eight years. I got into photography quite late," he said.

"It was a hobby that became a passion that became a decision to make an income from it 20 years ago," Mr Mercer said.

That decision followed the death of Mr Mercer's father and inheriting his photographic materials, film-making equipment and hi-fi gear.

Thinking back on it now, Mr Mercer believes there was an element of the baton being passed from father to son.

After two years of studying photographic techniques at Unitec in Auckland, Mr Mercer joined the Taupo Times as a news photographer in 1995. He became chief photographer at the Wanganui Chronicle in 1998 and stayed until 2001 when he moved to the Waikato and joined the Times. He went freelance for four years, returning to the Times last year.

"My main passion is documentary and feature work. When you spend a lot of time on one subject you can really make something out of that."

Making a living out of such work is practically unheard of in New Zealand, so Mr Mercer is content to work at a newspaper.

"You get to photograph everything from school fetes, right through to big events like the Christchurch earthquakes and Rena."

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Mr Mercer was humbled by being named National Geographic Photographer of the Year.

"I really did not expect to win this," he said. "I thought I might have a shot at the photo essay category. I was a bit shocked I was selected."

New Zealand Geographic said, on its website: "Press photographers flocked to Tauranga to record the MV Rena disaster and subsequent cleanup, but it proved a very difficult assignment. For safety reasons, vessels were kept a great distance from the wreck, the potential for aerial photography was limited and press were corralled into conferences. Few photographers captured frames that illustrated the scale of the environmental disaster, the public to clean it up and the helplessness felt by the authorities. Bruce Mercer's frames had tremendous energy and insight. He shot close to the action where possible, and used a long lens judiciously to compress the foreground and distant background to create the strongest set of imagery from that event. In the heat of political and public attention, Mercer created a story that made him New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year 2012."

- Waikato Times

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