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photoforum 69 December 2003
John Miller: Media Peace Award recipient 2003
Notes in response to an interview by Faye Norman, on the occasion of John Miller’s exhibition, ‘Awha ki Uta: A Tribute to the Whirlwind Generation’, at Te Taumata Art Gallery, Symonds Street, Auckland, 1-30 August 2003
I was born on the North Shore of Auckland in pre-harbour bridge days, when the place had a Waiheke Island-like ambience of earlier years (gravel roads, little fibrelite baches tucked away around the place, tank water supply and the night cart). During my early life, when I was brought up by my mother, I lived, for eight years, in various places in Northland, where she taught in primary schools. Then, after a year of high school in Whakatane, where I boarded privately, I ended up in Wellington, where I was taken under the wing, so to speak, of Prof. (now Dame) Joan Metge. Joan ensured that I finished my secondary education and I owe a great deal to her. Tena ra koe, Joan, mo to aroha, to manaakitanga kia au. I subsequently did a couple of years of University study. During this period, my interests became more directed toward documentary photography at a time when the country was experiencing a degree of political and social upheaval.
In those days, it was unusual for kids to actually take photos themselves as the available equipment wasn’t very user friendly for children. Around 1965, the Kodak Instamatic camera first appeared, which made it much easier for children to start taking their own photos. I thought about getting one of these myself, but considered them too rudimentary for serious photography (and they cost 25 pounds!). After a brief flirtation with a semi-adjustable 35 mm camera, I ended up buying a Russian Lubitel twin-lens reflex 120 camera which was fully adjustable (and cheaper). I used it to take photos of friends at school, local scenes around Whangarei, and later, holiday snaps in Auckland. I recall that one shot I took of the hydrofoil ‘Manuwai’ that used to make the Waiheke ferry run, was published some years later in National Business Review. In Whakatane in 1966, I photographed scenes of the town, an air show at the local airport and the earthworks at the Matahina Dam construction site. A recently published photo of an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in 1967 was taken before I moved to Wellington. 1
Apart from taking a few photos of the Wellington College environs and a visiting governor-general (published in the school magazine), and the official opening of the Parewahawha meeting house at Bulls, I did little further photography until I got to university in 1969 and started photographing demonstrations. Pictures I took of visiting Rhodesian civil rights activist, Judith Todd and a raid by antiwar protesters on Dominion editor Jack Kelliher’s office were published in the Victoria University’s Students’ Association newspaper Salient. Later that year, I acquired a clunky but serviceable Russian Zenit-E SLR which I used until I moved into Nikon gear in 1972. (I’m still using the Nikon lenses). Most of my work has been shot on 35 mm although I have, in recent years, occasionally worked in 120mm and 4x5 inch formats. In a departure from my usual practice, I photographed the last anti-GE march of October 2003, using a Pentax 6x7cm SLR camera.
I thus found myself travelling in an old bus up to the Bay of Islands with, amongst others, James K. Baxter, and photographed that first protest which featured Paul Kotara attempting to set fire to the New Zealand White Ensign with a copy of the Communist Party’s newspaper, The People’s Voice. My photo of the groups attempt to stage a walk-on protest on the upper marae was published, some years later, in Donna Awatere’s book Maori Sovereignty. Thwarted by the police, sailors and Maori wardens, only Hana Jackson made it to the middle where finance minister Muldoon was addressing the gathering. I have since photographed a number of the Waitangi Day commemorations over the years and some of these appeared in my show, ‘Awha ki Uta’ at Te Taumata Gallery, in August 2003.
A large part of this show comprised photographs taken of the arrival of the Maori Land March in Wellington on 13 October 1975. These photographs differ technically from most of my other work from this period as they were all shot on Ilford FP4 - I normally used either Tri-X or HP4. As I recall, I had run out of the faster film stock and was forced, with some initial misgivings, to use the slower alternative. However, I was pleasantly surprised at the improved definition of the resulting photographs.
Considering the various manifestations of civilian dissent in regard to particular government policies (whether New Zealand, South African or American) that I have photographed, I seem to have been performing the role of a sympathetic observer, insofar as I tend to support the causes that motivate such protests, rallies or meetings. My own family connections to the Ngapuhi Iwi of central Northland give an added dimension to how I approach my coverage of matters Maori, particularly any aspect of the ongoing pursuit of tangata whenua for Tino Rangatiratanga. However, I don’t think that one’s cultural background alone should determine a photographer’s ability to cover Maori subjects. Documentary photography transcends cultural boundaries and each individual has their own unique view of the world. I know, though, that being part-Maori has opened doors for me in some areas of this field. On the other hand, I do feel much more obligated to be sensitive of people’s wishes and conditions, to which, some non-Maori photographers might feel less constrained.2
It is inevitable that a photographic archive of this chronological span contains images of people that I come across in subsequent years. One of the land march photographs in the show depicts Dave Ruru wheeling his young daughter along the Motorway in her pushchair. I was most surprised to encounter Tania nearly two decades later as she handed out Maori Land Rights pamphlets at the Waitangi Marae during one of the Waitangi Treaty observances in the late 1990s. She was aware of the image (it had been published some years before) and always wondered who had taken it. It is incidents like these that demonstrate how such photos gradually assume the patina of history (and give one a sense of ageing). It is also indicative of how the face of Maori protest has changed over the years as old personalities (with a few conspicuous exceptions) withdraw into the background and a new cast takes its place behind the banners. It’s also possible to observe the diversifying nature of the projection of Maori political aspirations as, in more recent years, iwi based structures that evolved through the Waitangi treaty settlement process, are exercising their own clout on the domestic political process. Certainly, the black berets and army jackets of some of the 1975 land marchers, contrast markedly with the smartly suited Maori leaders I photographed at last July’s angry foreshore and seabed hui at Paeroa.
Yet, I can’t help feeling that all these photos of Maori protest portray an unbridgeable difference of perception between Maori, and the Pakeha power structure as to the exact status of the tangata whenua in this country’s constitutional arrangements. A naïve foreigner, viewing for the first time, such images of occupations, marches, banners and flags, might imagine them to be a documentation of the ongoing struggle of a distinct national entity for self determination. A struggle analogous to that of the Basques, the Palestinians, the Kurds, or, more closer to home, the Tahitians. It is most ironic that, unlike these other peoples who have been repressed with various degrees of harshness by their political masters (who correctly recognise exactly what these minorities are struggling for), New Zealand Maori (at least since 1916)3 have had their own struggles framed and defined as comparatively innocuous distractions by our own state powers. As Helen Clark proclaimed, in a radio news item during the recent foreshore and seabed debate, "Maoridom is not a nation!" – as if Governor Hobson travelled around Aotearoa signing a treaty with a host of mere interest groups! Any perceived threat to the unitary state is effectively denied. Consequently the batons of riot squads and the firing of tear gas canisters – or worse – do not feature in any of my Maori protest photos – to the probable relief of us all. However, the extent of disjuncture between the two parties here makes it inevitable that protest activity, in some form or other (and the photographing of it), will continue for the foreseeable future.
In looking through my archive, I am struck by how much things have changed yet also appear to have stayed the same. The physical landscape, where much of the activity that I photographed took place, has changed markedly as the urban face of Auckland and Wellington has been reshaped by the building boom of the 1980s. (Witness the demise of all those grandly ornate early 20th Century facades in Queen St and Lambton Quay). Many of the faces who appear decades ago as idealistic youth have gone on to become the "establishment"of today that a new set of social activists (along with the principled survivors of past years) rail against in the streets (and – with the advent of MMP – in Parliament!). It has been a most curious feeling to yet again, be photographing another cycle of anti-war demonstrations. But it is a feeling mixed with relief that the present generation of 20-30-year-olds, for whom Vietnam is beyond personal recall, is prepared to get out there and repeat what the earlier protest generation was moved to do over three decades ago. All in all, civil dissent against the military (and, more recently, the economic) policies of the United States is the enduring constant of much of what I have photographed over the years. If anything has changed, it is the realisation that many of the seemingly disparate issues protested against are actually interlocked. For instance, that the US is using its US$390 billion per annum military machine to back up its economic global reach through the World Trade Organisation and various bilateral and multilateral trade and investment treaties; to sequester the world’s oil supply; to seize control of, and genetically manipulate, global food production; and to ignore the harsh reality that the planet’s survival really does depend on the U.S. drastically curbing its hugely disproportionate consumption of the world’s resources.
In this respect, a photographic archive which extends over more than three decades has a use in reminding those of us who were there, and informing those who weren’t, of what actually transpired in previous years and how past events might relate to the present day. Along with many other photographers, I contributed images to the ‘Tour Show’ and the book By Batons and Barbed Wire which documented the tumultuous events of the 1981 Springbok Rugby Tour. These images have been shown widely, both here and overseas, and endure as a stark reminder of a very unpleasant period of New Zealand’s history about which younger generations need to be informed.