Ans Westra: A life in photography reviewed in Stuff


Damien Grant reviews Ans Westra: A life in photography by Paul Moon for Stuff:

‘There is a picture taken at Waitangi in 1963. It is of the Queen walking, head down, stride purposeful. It is striking. But not as striking as the photographer.

She was 27. An immigrant from Holland. Her childhood included five years under Nazi rule, a broken home, abusive step father and a complex relationship with her father who settled in Auckland and was the anchor that brought her to this country.

She had no business walking 10 paces before the Queen, snapping away. She wasn’t accredited. She’d crashed her car in her rush to get to Waitangi and enjoyed a laugh with Her Majesty over her dishevelled state.

Who was she?

Ans Westra isn’t a recognised national figure yet her work defines what we understand of a large part of our history. You will have seen some of her pictures. She took 350,000 of them. Over six decades; and most of that in an era of film, dark rooms, and box cameras you had to squint into.

The image of the sovereign, she took several that day, resonates because Westra did not observe boundaries. She was there to document the moment but also how other people were observing that moment.

While the rest of the media was looking at Queen Elizabeth, Westra turned her camera towards the crowd. One records a group of Māori sitting in a communal huddle in front of a line of tape forming a contrast with mostly pakeha standing in isolated splendour behind them.

This was Westra’s brilliance. Knowing where to look and when to take the shot. But it was not her pictures that drew me in. You could describe Westra as obsessed with photography, but that is insufficient. She was possessed by a need to observe, and to record, the world around her.

AUT Professor of History, Dr Paul Moon, broke the habit of a lifetime by seeking her out, asking permission to write her story. Moon’s past books, and there have been many (his bibliography is longer than my rap sheet) have been about the dead. Here he set out to write about the living.

Sadly, Westra died before he could complete the project and never had the pleasure of enjoying the finished product. A shame. It is a powerful read. Here we have an ordinary person living an extraordinary life in relative obscurity and constant penury.’

Read the rest of the review here.


As she began her journey, the country was undergoing a transformation as rural Māori migrated to the cities. A generation dislocated, exploring a new universe, evolving and adapting at a pace and significance that went unnoticed, possibly even by those who were doing the evolving.

But Westra noticed. And she recorded this transformation. She was there as young Māori were dancing to American music at the Māori Community Hall in the 60s and as David Lange opened immersion schools in the 80s.

She built her reputation photographing Māori but that must not define her. Her camera focused on the Springbok tour, on the multiculturalism of Auckland and the lethargy and life force of the capital.

Kuia and mokopuna coronation hui, Turangawaewae marare, Ngaruawahia, 1962.

Moon quotes her; “I don’t photograph in the way that press photograph. They look at the actual event and the big picture. I look at more how people experience it.” She pointed her lens where no one else did, to record what no one considered interesting.