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All about the people for veteran photographer

AFTER more than four decades of documenting nearly every milestone of the region, Stephen Jones has decided to donate more than 650,000 images to Tairawhiti Museum for safekeeping.

The long-time photographer is shutting the doors of his retail shop but does not plan to put his camera down any time soon.

“For me, this epic journey has been all about the people,” he said.

He has met them in nearly every possible capacity — at school photograph sessions, weddings, funerals, royal visits, during tragedies, movies, live theatre, celebrations and more.

His collection is like a modern-day William Crawford collection and will be filed at the museum for future generations to enjoy . . . much as current generations pore over William Crawford's old images.

His first “proper” photography job was a wedding in 1973 but it wasn't until 1978 that he got a full-time job in the industry with Graham Kinge.

In 1982, he started his own business upstairs from where SJ Photos currently operates in Gladstone Road.

Stephen has many fond memories of shooting some of the most special moments of people's lives, alongside things that put New Zealand on the world stage like the movies The Bounty, Whale Rider and Boy.

He has had a loyal and supportive staff who have contributed to a massive team effort that SJ Photos is known for. They include his wife and business partner Kath.

Their business faced its biggest challenge with the advent of the digital age.

“It really hit in 2007 and inside of two years we lost $100,000 in turnover.”

Before then, he and his team would process and print 100 rolls of film a day.

Now, they barely do any printing.

School photos have provided a huge chunk of his business and he estimates he has shot around 10,000 kids over the years, moving into the second generation of some families.

Stephen introduced the Gisborne Photo Rally to the region, challenging photographers to shoot a single roll of film across eight subjects over a 12-hour period. It was hugely popular and ran for 15 years.

“I think during that time we used enough film to go end-to-end from Gisborne to Te Karaka.”

He still has the full gambit of cameras in his armoury too — from a BoxBrownie and a Braun Paxette left to him by his mum as a kid, through to a Nikon FM, F4 and D750, with plenty of others in between.

“There have been such massive jumps in technology too,” he says, reminiscing about his first autofocus camera in 1990.

Stephen will continue to operate his photography business by appointment, along with doing school photos. He is looking forward to spending more time with family and doing more volunteer work, including helping youngsters with their reading.

He hasn't discounted going back to a little photography teaching.

“One of the highlights has to be seeing people in my photo classes having that lightbulb moment when they just get it.”

He has taught a fair bit over the years, including five years at the local polytech, as a video tutor at Matapuna Training Centre and through Gisborne Camera Club of which he is a life member.

“I have mixed feelings about stepping back but it's all about the people — not the cameras,” says Stephen of his sixth relocation and downsize.

“It has been such a huge part of my life for so long and it really is such a passion, but this is a chance to preserve our history by giving all my negatives to the museum — and also give a little back to the community.”

STORING the PAST FOR THE FUTURE: More than 650,000 negatives and images will be added to Tairawhiti Museum's extensive photography collection to provide future generations with an insight into the human and physical history of this region. The negs have been gifted by semi-retiring photographer Stephen Jones, who has caught on camera anything and everything for more than four decades. Pictured with Stephen are Tairawhiti Museum curator of photography Dudley Meadows and director Eloise Wallace. Stephen Jones is closing the doors to his retail shop on Gladstone Road for the last time on Thursday but will not be putting down his camera anytime soon. Picture by Paul Rickard