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Ans Westra

Ans Westra is one of New Zealand’s best known social documentary photographers. Westra was born in Leiden, Netherlands in 1936, she began taking photographs as a hobby in 1954. In 1957, aged twenty-one, she arrived in New Zealand.

Westra had her first photographs published in 1960 - two covers for Te Ao Hou, a magazine published by the Department of Maori Affairs. In 1962 she began working as a full time freelance photographer. Much of her work was for Te Ao Hou and the School Publications branch of the Department of Education.

A School Bulletin publication, Washday at the Pa, that propelled her to national attention in 1964 when it was controversially withdrawn from distribution by the government. This was in response to claims that it reinforced a stereotype of Māori as living in underprivileged circumstances. It was true that the family Westra photographed were materially poor but what the critics overlooked was how Westra captured the warmth of family life and the rich and happy existence of its children.

Westra used a medium-format, waist-level viewfinder camera for most of her life. She felt it allowed her to be more unobtrusive: ‘You don’t put it up to your eyes, so you don’t obscure your own vision. People are not nearly so aware of a little box at waist level, so you don’t interrupt your own interaction with the scene, and I interact as little as possible.... people seem to forget about me really.’ 

In 1998 Westra was awarded the Companion of the Order of New Zealand Merit for services to photography; in 2007 she became an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Icon artist; and in 2015 she received an honorary doctorate from Massey University in recognition of her long-standing contribution to New Zealand’s visual culture.