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Ans Westra: A Life in Photography by Paul Moon

 


From the 1960’s on, until her death in 2023, Dutch-Kiwi photographer Ans Westra captured the lives of ordinary New Zealanders, both Māori and Pākehā and left an incredible legacy of hundreds and thousands of photographs. This astounding photographic record of New Zealand’s changing society will continue to give future generations a fascinating look into how we were then.


In Ans Westra. A life in photography. Paul Moon has meticulously researched and told the story of her fascinating life in a very engaging way. It is richly illustrated with her photographs. He has written perceptive analyses of these showing her brilliant talent for composition and the way in which she elevated the ordinary into the extraordinary.


Ans Westra was born in Leiden in the Netherlands in 1936.The German occupation of the Netherlands when she was four, the breakdown of her parent’s marriage, and a stepfather who was a paedophile, caused some traumatic childhood experiences. The defining moment in her life was when her stepfather Abel took her to the Family of Man exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam which showcased 503 photographs focusing on people’s everyday lives.

 

‘I felt overpowerd by it. It was marvellous to see what you could do recording life. Just everyday happenings. The whole cycle of life’ she said.

 

It inspired her to become a self-taught documentary photographer who created her own style and strove to refine it, choosing to ignore  the changing fashions in photography.

 

In 1957, aged 21, she arrived in Wellington by boat on the Sibajak. Her lucky break came when two of her photographs were accepted by  Te Ao Hou, a new magazine predominantly  for Maori people, published by the Department of Māori affairs and were used as cover pictures. This opened up many further opportunities for her to visit marae and to photograph formal Māori events. For five months she also travelled to isolated rural Māori communities to record their way of life.


Her book Washday at the Pa, about a day in the life of a large, loving Māori family was published in 1964 by the Ministry of Education and distributed to all schools. The recently formed Māori Women’s Welfare League was outraged feeling that this impoverished family living in a rundown rural home would be seen as representative of all Māori, which had not been Ans’s intention. They asked for it be withdrawn from every school. This subsequently happened. It cast a long shadow on Ans Westra’s future career. Paul Moon has devoted a whole insightful chapter to this contentious publication and its aftermath. 

 

Ans, a tall Dutch woman, was often seen in public recording the lives of ordinary New Zealanders with her beloved medium-format, waist-level viewfinder Rolleiflex camera.  Paul Moon introduces us to her hippy younger self and tells of the parties she threw at her flat in Wellington in the 1960’s which were frequented by the creative and rebellious, including Barry Crump. He got her pregnant with her first son, then left her to bring him up by herself, causing her great heartache. She had two more children with a fellow Dutch immigrant, but this marriage ended in divorce. As a solo Mum, for much of her life, Ans struggled to make ends meet and put food on the table. Her life was always a balancing act between being a good mother and following her passion for photography.

 

Ans had a restless and curious nature who loved nothing better than to throw a mattress in the back of her station wagon and set off on journeys of exploration to find photo opportunities.


When she started out as a documentary photographer in the early sixties Ans was welcome to photograph Māori. But as time passed there was a growing feeling that it was inappropriate for Pākehā to photograph any aspect of Māori and their culture, and she began to be viewed as an intruder. Ans, who had always aimed to be an impartial and nonjudgmental onlooker, found this difficult to accept but eventually admitted that continuing to work in that field could be regarded as inappropriate for an outsider.


She began to work on a wide variety of other photographic projects so she could support herself and her family. Paul Moon has provided a very comprehensive overview of these.


Although she became a New Zealand citizen Ans always spoke with a strong Dutch accent, marking her as an outsider. Then, in 1993 she made a surprising announcement. She was going back to the Netherlands for good. By far the great majority of her cohort of 1950’s Dutch immigrants, of whom my family was one, chose to settle permanently in New Zealand, so this was startling news, but life in the Netherlands was no longer to her taste and she came back again.

 

The Dutch are known for being direct and speaking their minds, but this had not been Ans’s way. She had always aimed to let her photographs speak for themselves. However in her last years she became more vocal and publicly voiced her concern about issues like the degradation of our landscape. And until the very end she was planning on doing more projects, and exhibitions propelled by what Paul Moon calls her simple manifesto: I can’t disappear until I’ve documented as much as possible.

Paul Moon’s biography of this remarkable documentary photographer is beautifully written and I couldn’t stop reading it. I have always loved her photographs but knew very little about her life.


She was a person who was reticent about sharing her personal feelings and innermost thoughts so she will always remain somewhat of an enigma. I rather think Ans would have liked it that way so we can fill in the gaps with our creative imagination.

 

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Massey University Press

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