The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself. And that is no mean function.
~ Edward Steichen
Every so often, usually when my back is turned, the Universe comes along, gives the Dreamy-Artist-Me a jolly good slap, and reminds me that the real power of photography lies in its ability to document the human condition. And maybe make a difference.
A job came in. We want you to go down and photograph a wananga (workshop) in Mataura.
Sure. I can do that. What is the wananga?
O, its about helping whānau ( families) develop a maintenance plan for their whare ( houses). We will send you a run sheet.
So, early one morning, while the birds were getting around to thinking about maybe getting out of bed, I drove south down to Gore. It isn’t much you can do except wind the music up and watch the scenery slide by. I watched the mists weeping along the fields around Balfour, and lost myself in the kirtan coming from the car’s speakers.
When I got there, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was honoured to be asked. It felt like something special, in some way, a privilege. And a challenge to step back into a documentary frame, to be of immediate and useful service.
The wananga settled in, and I fell into its rhythm. The people there were all from the bottom of the ladder, people doing their best to make the most of the little they had. Theirs were homes in dire need of maintenance. One of them told me how she had inherited hers from here recently-passed mother. She felt an obligation to do it up, and make it beautiful for her children when her time came. She told me that when she moved in, it tipped her into a deep depression.
“I just sat and looked at it for months,” she said. “It needs paint, a new roof and barge boards, and the plumbing is f*%$Ed in the back. And how am I supposed to do that on an invalid’s benefit?”
I understood. After spending a year on the dole myself, I knew that $220 a week goes less than nowhere. A $4 cup of coffee is an impossible luxury.
And yet the initiative she was part of was a fabulous one. Using targeted funding, the programme sent in the experts to do a serious analysis of the property and work out exactly what needed doing, then help them to prioritise repairs and maintenance. If they required insulation, someone helped them fill in the necessary application forms for having it installed.
I looked over their shoulders as they were encouraged to imagine their dreams for the property on large sheets of paper. I saw words like ‘decking’, and ‘warm’ and ‘dry’ and ‘no leaks’. Simple things that people with their own homes take for granted. For them,, these were things to strive for.
We stood around at morning tea, while they talked and I listened.
“ You know,” one said, “ at least we have our own homes. We’re not living in garages or cars.”
The others murmured in grateful agreement.
I was starting to get angry. I was thinking of the self-satisfied mealy-mouthed hypocrisy of the politicians and the smug superiority of the Stuff poaka commentariat. And I remembered a man who, two thousand years ago, preferred to hang out with tax collectors and prostitutes rather than the holier-than-thou Pharisees.
Then I realised that I could complete the brief, photograph the wananga and drive home. It would be enough for me to say “ job done” and send in the bill.
Only it wasn’t and I couldn’t.
I needed to do more.
I broke in briefly.
“ I would love to come round and see you in your homes and make some photographs of you and what you are trying to achieve. Please let me know if you are OK with that.”
Three of them agreed.
When the workshop was over, I followed them home.
- lived in an original settler home, one of those ugly cold 19th-century homes built to face the street, which were all about status and being gentry, all the things the working class immigrants could never have back in the Old Country. A grand entry to the street (never the sun), and a long hall with a 10ft stud. Cold, draughty, and impossible to heat in winter. She would never get underfloor insulation because the house had been built directly on the ground. A giant logburner kept the lounge and kitchen warm enough, but I could only imagine what it must be like in the winter, with no ceiling or wall insulation.
- was living in a large art deco home with a colossal coal cellar, a relic of days when coal was cheap, of good quality and readily available. I noted the lichen on the north/sun-facing window sills. S. had four children under 9, one of whom was autistic. And your tāne? O him. No, he doesn’t want anything to do with them.
I see, I thought to myself. A tāne happy to put the tamariki there but not to pick up the responsibility for his actions.
However, she was proud, o so proud of her home. She had plans for painting the outside of the house and moving the bathroom with its wallpaper hanging in strips, peeled off by the damp of a Southland winter to the coal cellar.
Then it was time to drive an hour across Southland to Ohai and visit Caroline and Kerry. The day was gloomy and getting gloomier, and it matched my mood.
Nightcaps, a former coalmining town, is away on the edge of civilisation. Kiwis make jokes about Nightcaps. If the Earth truly is flat, then Nightcaps is perched on the rim of the world. Ohai is another 8km further on.
I stopped in the main street, got out and looked around. A real case of arrested ribbon development. The pub had long since closed, there was no shop, and the houses, mostly miner cottages, were grey and dilapidated. The landscape was an ugly mixture of regeneration and overplanting, of wilding pines and indifference.
I pulled up to their driveway, and Kerry was waiting. I looked around and saw a place beautifully-kept. The lawns were mowed, and there was a lot of upcycling going on. There were containers for shrubs and fruit trees. There were carefully-stacked piles of recycled timbers. There was hope.
“ Come in,” he said, “and have a coffee.”
He led me into their small kitchen and lounge. Caroline came in a few minutes later, and we all sat down to talk. As Māori do, we discussed our whakapapa. It turned out she was a Dunne from Panguru.
“ I guess that makes us whānaunga, “ I replied.
“probably,” she said. A connection had just formed.
“Do you mind me asking about your arm?” I asked Kerry. His left sleeve hung from his shoulder.
“O that. A motorcycle accident 31 years ago.”
“So, you built all this with one arm?”
“ You place is lovely,” I said. “It’s so warm and cosy.” There were pictures on the walls, rugs on the couches and shelves full of books.
“ It has taken us a while to get to this,” he said.“ It’s not flash in winter. The wind pours through the walls. There’s no insulation in them. And in winter we don’t get around without shoes on. The floor is too cold. The fire runs all winter, but there’s no shortage of firewood around here.”
“ Why did you decide to live in Ohai?”
“It’s all we could afford, but we like it here. It’s nice and quiet.”
I sensed acceptance, and from that quiet joy.
They took me around the property. They showed me their bedroom with its bare boards. They pointed out how, in winter, the black mould crept up the walls while the water poured down. The bedroom was a shed which had been tacked on the back of the house. Directly underneath it was the septic tank.
Then they took me around the back of the house and pointed out the rotting wallboards. In an attempt to stop the wind getting in around the aluminium window frames, they had filled the gaps with polyurethane foam. That hadn’t worked so well.
As we squelched over grass which was already wet ( winter hadn’t yet come), Caroline told me about how they were coping on invalid’s benefits.
“We are pretty self-sufficient,” she said. “We have chooks and a big vege garden. That feeds us most of the year.”
“So, what is next?” I asked.
“Well, we want to put lino down in the kitchen.”
Kerry pointed to his remaining right hand.
“I am not sure how much more I will be able to do. The surgeon says I have to be careful. I only have a few nerves left in my hand.”
I tried to remain bright. Inwardly I was weeping.
“Let me make a photo of the two of you.”
I made a lot.
Then it was time to leave and take the long road home.
“Come and see us anytime,“ Kerry smiled. Now I had better go feed the chooks.”
I wept most of the way back.