Portrait of an artist

As told to Lloyd Jones

Before you began writing people's stories you were a photographer, how did that happen?

For part of every year now I live on a boat. Those who know about boats, particularly old boats such as ours, understand the merit of someone who can do things. On the river where we live someone who can fix an electrical problem or resurrect a dying diesel engine is king. My father, in the time I lived with him, was the same. A man who could make things, and make things happen. A man who could put his mind and hand to any problem, nut it out, make it work, find an answer.

As much as I admire such people I cannot claim the same for myself. I’ll have a go at things, as most Kiwis of my generation will, but I’m no expert. I left school at fourteen, working anywhere I could find whenever I was in need of money, spending it when I had it, on whatever took my fancy.

In the winter of 1971 I was twenty-two years old and living back in Auckland when something happened that changed the way I thought about the world, an epiphany that took my life in quite a different direction. One day, quite by chance, I found myself in room full of the most extraordinary people. Portraits, made by the wonderful photographer, Gyula Halász, known to the world today by the name he derived from his Transylvanian birthplace, Brassaï. It would be true to say that the work I stood looking at for many hours that day astounded me and even before leaving that room, I realised a transformation had taken place.


When did you know for certain you would become a photographer?

I heard a voice behind me saying, ‘Hey! Hey! Over here.’ It was early morning in the Auckland fish markets. I’m surrounded by the smell of king fish, mullet, snapper.  Strong fluorescent lights illuminated the whole area, bouncing off water that coated the floor, the walls, the tables and the men who work there. I turned towards the voice and standing there was a man with Stalin’s moustache but not his face. He was wearing a European cap over a shy, gentle expression. He had kind, shining eyes and held a large fish. ‘Take a picture of this,’ he said, happy and a little bashful at the same time, and so, I did as I was told.

Later that night in the dull red light of my dark room I watched hopefully as the image slowly emerged in the developer. I remember saying, ‘Yes,’ very loudly, then taking a deep breath and turning around in a full circle before looking at it again. I was both very happy and surprised. This was the first picture I had made that seemed to have a life of its own. Shimmering there in the developer was the story of that moment. A picture made of silver, light and shadow. It seemed to both hint at the future, and suggest the past. His – and perhaps mine also.


When did you first start to use text?

I was always interested in listening to people’s stories. My photographs have always been of people; I was never that interested in anything else. I tended to work slowly and with the cooperation of the people I photographed. Usually that entailed listening to their stories, often for many hours. A couple of years after making that first picture I was offered an exhibition. At some point during the time I was putting it together I remember having this sort of Dick Tracy fantasy: wouldn’t it be great if you could look at a portrait and then press a button on the wall and out of a little speaker would come the story of their life. I even tried it in a half-hearted sort of way. I got as far as recording someone’s story on a large old reel-to-reel recorder I borrowed from a friend. A couple of days later she came and retrieved it while I was out, and promptly taped over everything I’d recorded. I gave up on it then and didn’t think about again until years later when I started working on my first book, Working Men (1984).


Why did you decide to use text and image together at that point?

As I said before, my youth had been spent labouring in various industries, mines, factories and so on, in both New Zealand and Australia. For a lot of reasons I have a great deal of respect for many of the people I worked with over that time which is why I wanted to make the book. I began at the Christchurch gas works just before it was to be pulled down. The photographs I was making there were of working men, but the reality was that they were soon to be made redundant. One of the men in the book, John Dale, I photographed while he was temporarily employed demolishing his place of work. Talking to these men, listening to what they were telling me, it became apparent that the pictures were not going to be enough, there had to be something more. Their own thoughts and feelings were the obvious answer.


Part of the power of your text is that it doesn’t appear to be mediated by a third person, even though the controlling hand of the author stands behind the work.

My technique, if you can call it that, has evolved over a long time. I was always rather bored reading those strictly academic oral recordings that included questions. I’m sure they are made for good reason and with the best of intentions, it’s just that I prefer stories, and in particular stories about how people feel. In the beginning I simply removed my own voice and moved things around a bit. These days I do a lot more. As anyone who has seen a transcript of an interview knows, a lot of what is said doesn’t make that much sense written down. Innuendo, gesture, subtleties that abound in the spoken word are missing. The form of a discussion is a very different thing than the form of a written narrative. These days I try to construct an interesting and informative text from the words I have collected; always, of course, being careful not to change meaning or intent. My job here is much the same as when making a photograph; to try and shape what has been told to me into a readable story. One that holds both the reader’s interest and conveys, in a meaningful way, what the person wanted to say.


How did the Avonside project come about?

It happened because we were asked to do it.  In response to the Christchurch earthquakes, Lawrence Roberts – whose own home in the suburb of Avonside had been seriously damaged – began writing avonsideblog. It was an impressive undertaking that kept his friends and neighbours as well informed and as up to date as possible amid all of those devastating changes taking place in their community. I got involved, along with my two collaborators, Bridgit Anderson and Tim Veling, because Lawrence knew of the work of Place In Time, the Christchurch documentary project I started in 2000. He simply asked if we would record the experiences of those in his community – a community that was about to virtually disappear – and we said yes. There were no guiding principles, Christchurch is where we live and it felt like something we could and should do – so we did it. Over about a year I talked at length to around sixty people in a fairly small area. One person would introduce me to another, the person next door, a friend or relative in the next street, some I met at a street barbeque organised by Lorraine Marshall and Paul Watson. Tim photographed the changing landscape of the suburb, Bridgit made portraits of the people I spoke to.

The Christchurch Arts Festival became interested at a fairly early stage. The fact that there are no large indoor exhibition spaces presently in Christchurch helped shape the idea of large outdoor panels. It is a way of exhibiting that Place In Time has used before. I’m not opposed to art galleries but I like the idea of putting our work into places that give the best opportunity for large numbers of people to see it. We had one show a few years ago about a Christchurch community that we put up in their local supermarket. Forty thousand people walked past it in two weeks and a large percentage stopped to take a look. There is also a perception that people dislike large amounts of text with images in exhibitions. From my own experience over the years this is simply not true. If the text is interesting and has relevance to the viewer, they will stand for long periods of time and read it. The Press, Christchurch’s daily newspaper, published a four-page liftout about the Avonside exhibition the day it opened.  

The work on Avonside has not finished with the exhibition. Tim continues to photograph the changes as they occur in the landscape. I have been working on shaping much longer versions of the stories. What will happen to them? I’m not sure. I would like to see it become a book, I love books, but maybe it will just end up on our website, Who knows? Whatever happens to the work I like to think of it as a tribute to those people who, having lost so much, were so generous in the way they have shared their own private and emotional experiences of this disaster. It is a significant gift and I am grateful to them for allowing me to be a part of it.

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