Coming into focus
Photographers can typically be found behind the camera, not in front of it.
That was until actor and director Martine Baanvinger decided to turn the lens around for her newest play, Aperture, which focuses on photographer Ans Westra.
Westra is best known for her controversial school bulletin, Washday at the Pa, which documented a rural Maori family in Ruatoria.
The bulletin was printed, recalled and destroyed by the New Zealand Government in 1964.
“The play is a combination of her life and her work,” Baanvinger says.
Baanvinger, who wrote and starred in the award-winning play Solitude, shares a history of sorts with Westra.
Both are natives of the Netherlands and migrated to Aotearoa, albeit with some five decades in between.
“The way society is here, the way people live their lives, it is very different from in Holland. That connected me to her,” Baanvinger says.
When Baanvinger first visited New Zealand twenty years ago she saw Westra’s photos in Te Papa and they immediately struck her.
From then the seed for the play was planted and she sought out Westra to develop the script.
Aperture is a portrait of Westra’s childhood in the Netherlands, her immigration journey to New Zealand and her life as a photographer.
In 1957, Westra emigrated from the Netherlands and began to take photos of her new homeland.
Fascinated by Maori culture, she created an intimate and historical documentation of rural Maori life when urban drift pulled them from their homes and towards the city centres for jobs.
Washday at the Pa was published in 1964 by the Education Department’s School Publications section.
The bulletin charted a day in the life of a rural Maori family with nine children.
The raw photos were seen by some as an attack.
The Maori Women’s Welfare League lambasted Westra’s photographs at their conference, labelling them inaccurate and unhelpful.
They argued the sub-standard living conditions were poor and primitive stereotypes of Maori.
The bulletin proved so controversial that the Government recalled 38,000 copies of Washday at the Pa and shredded them.
Westra, who had spent months living among rural Maori, acknowledged some of the criticism and said afterwards that the book might have been received better if it was published privately.
But the argument the photos were “inaccurate” was itself misleading.
In 1961 nearly 30 percent of Maori households had no hot water, over 20 percent had no bath or shower, over 40 percent had no flush toilet, and over 70 percent relied on an open fire for heating, according to an editorial in The Christchurch Press.
But the focus on the living conditions misses Westra’s point.
“The booklet was never meant to portray a typical Maori family. It’s just a story of a happy family living in the country. It shows the warmth of family relationships,” Westra said at the time.
The play helps the viewer understand how Ans worked, Baanvinger says.
“When Ans focused on one thing, she would zoom in and completely go for it,” Baanvinger says.
Baanvinger says the play helps us understand how Westra could turn somewhat invisible when she was the most striking person in the countryside.
“She was obviously noticed, especially when she photographed rural Maori in the 1960s because she was Pakeha, Dutch and tall.”
“So it was about how she figured out how to develop trust with her subjects, and be in their presence and have them be comfortable with that. That was something she was a real master at.”
The play helps highlight the complexities of Westra’s work but walks the viewer through her beginnings in a new country and how she became the person behind the camera.
Baanvinger says the play has many threads that may pique people’s interest, be it art, history, photography or even whakapapa.
Many of the individuals in the Washday at the Pa photos, which feature in the play, will be relatives of people in Tairawhiti, Baanvinger says.
“People might come to see their ancestors, or their uncles and aunties.
“There are so many hooks in the play that people can connect with in this performance.”
Aperture: the Life and Work of Ans Westra, Lawson Field Theatre, Wednesday, July 14, 7.30pm. Tickets from ticketek.