John Miller has been a constant and reassuring presence at kaupapa Māori movements for 50 years. By bearing witness to our most pivotal moments, his lens has become one of the most powerful tools for activism in our history, writes Hana Pera Aoake and Morgan Godfery.
When the Ngāpuhi photographer John Miller recalls a memory he’ll often close his eyes. We imagine his memories moving like a camera shutter, recalling in an instant where he was, the person he was talking to, and what they were doing. In a recent show at ObjectSpace with award-winning architect Elisapeta Heta – Pōuwatu: Active Presence – Miller would arrive every morning and take visitors through his photographs and his memories, from naming the chiefs at a Māori Women’s Welfare League hui (Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan in a perfect koru dress) to recalling the talk at a wānanga for the Māori Artists and Writers rōpū.
That daily routine – hosting, storytelling – was a reminder of a point Judith Binney made in her essay, Māori Oral Narratives, Pākehā Written Texts, that oral histories often cohere around photographs. When Binney and her colleague Gillian Chapman took their photographic archives into Tūhoe country, the old people would almost uniformly mihi to the dead, mourning their passing and retelling the stories of their lives. This strikes us as a particularly Māori way to relate to the past that photographs represent, and it’s one way that Miller – perhaps te ao Māori’s finest photographer – relates to his work, telling and retelling the oral histories that accompany his images.
Pōuwatu: Active Presence was a site-specific installation. That sense of space was, for Miller’s work, quite literal, with Heta designing a wharenui to lovingly house his taonga. As you entered the exhibition space, you would remove your shoes, just as you would when you were entering a wharenui on the marae.
The floor was soft and carpeted, with a large table in the centre of the room, like a table laid out for manuhiri in the wharekai, only with iPads for scrolling through Miller’s photographic past. There were also sitting nooks carved into the edges of one wall and in one corner, much like the corners you might give up for kaumātua at the back of the wharenui who are sneaking in to hear the kōrero. The walls themselves were lined with photographs of some of the most important Māori leaders, artists and activists of the 20th century. These moments sit like pou, anchoring you to the physical space and reminding you of the restless sleep you get among the snoring bodies in the wharenui, all the while being watched over by your tūpuna.
The collaboration between Heta and Miller highlighted his 50-year career with images documenting vital figures and movements from the last half century, from the Springbok tour to Ihumātao, the Māori land marchers to He Taua, Ngā Tamatoa and the Polynesian Panthers, from the Māori Women’s Welfare League to the Rātana Church, Mana Motuhake, and the nascent Māori Party. The political character of each photograph is obvious, the subject matter says it all, but what distinguishes Miller is that he can do more than the intensely political: he can capture the joy of everyday Māori life too, like the banter as the ringawera put down a hāngī or the back and forth as they set the tables. As a testament to his skill and his experience in Māori communities, Miller was one of only two photographers who were given permission to document the tangi of Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu
When you meet Miller, and when he gifts you his kōrero, he does so as someone who was there; in the thick of it. But he is also someone with the distance of a “witness”, although a sympathetic one. “I tend to support the causes that motivate such protests, rallies or meetings,” he once said. Yet that designation – witness – strikes us as too humble and too passive. Miller was a literal witness, of course, but as hindsight layers new meanings and new stories on top of his images he becomes a participant as well, preserving the past for the next generation. And as time passes, and it becomes increasingly apparent how important Miller’s records are to what we know of the fight for tino rangatiratanga, he and his work transform. Miller is also the archivist, and in telling and retelling the stories of his photographs, he becomes an advocate. As Ariella Aïsha Azoulay notes in her book Civil Contract of Photography, photography is always more than what is printed on the photographic paper; it bears the seal of the photographic event, and the reconstruction of those events requires more than just identifying what is shown in the photograph. It requires a story.
In Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography, Azoulay argues that photography (unlike other forms of representation) binds us to a shared responsibility of meaning-making, creating a space where we can fashion genuine obligations to one another. This means that as photographic spectators we do not necessarily stand outside of the events we are seeing. In Azoulay’s own words we are equally aware of “the presence of those absent from the frame, extending awareness to all those who took part in the production of the visible, and allowing all participants populating the civil space in the photograph to meet on the same plane, even if only momentarily, and to ratify their inclusion within its space”. At its simplest, this means that, just as Miller is more than a mere witness, as viewers we are more than mere spectators. When we examine Pōuwatu’s photographs of the 1975 Māori land march we’re aware not only of the visible participants, but their reasons for marching and the resistance they met. In one shot capturing the “welcome” for the marchers on the forecourt of parliament, Miller captures that resistance: the soon-to-be-prime minister, Sir Robert Muldoon, is smirking in the back of shot.
In these moments Miller is, as a statement of fact, a witness. But sitting at the exhibition tables and looking through moment after moment on its iPads we couldn’t help but wonder what other photographs he has in his archive of work? There are, of course, photos of those long passed: Hana Te Hemara, Syd Jackson, Dame Whina Cooper and Eva Rickard to name a few. There are also photos capturing those people who are still with us, from a young Teanau Tuiono, in the photo a teenage activist at Waitangi and today a Green MP, as well as Tame Iti (still an activist) and Matua Moana Jackson. It’s humbling to view these images, and to speak with Miller whose very presence is active and constant and who walks effortlessly between the past, the present and the future, acknowledging what has changed and what work is still left to do.
One thing that an admirer of Miller’s work will notice is that his photographs never feel intrusive – they have a feeling of ease and manaaki for his subjects. Even at a tangi or bearing witness to the karanga, calling all the tūpuna of both tangata whenua and tangata tiriti, Miller’s eye is gentle and kind. With his camera he is listening, observing and absorbing the moment in a process Māori film-maker Barry Barclay described like this: “the camera can act with dignity at a hui. There is a certain restraint, a feeling of being comfortable with sitting back a little and listening.”
Indigenous peoples overseas often ask, at United Nations conferences, at academic events, and in international exchanges: “How do Māori do it?” We enjoy a Treaty that, at least in relative terms, helps shape regulation and legislation. We enjoy special representation in parliament and local government, our iwi corporations are big businesses in their own right, and we can point to Māori across public life, from the mainstream media to community leadership. This is political, economic and cultural power many of our brothers and sisters would struggle to recognise in their own countries. Indigenous people in Australia couldn’t vote until the mid-20th century. In Canada, the last residential school shut its doors at the turn of the 21st century, bringing an end to almost four centuries of state-run assimilation, and yet the horrors of those schools continue into today.
But what makes New Zealand different?
There are several credible answers. You could argue that the prevailing sentiment in London in the 1830s and 1840s, with the Slavery Abolition Act coming into force in 1833, and the Aborigines Protection Society actively promoting a “benign” colonialism into the 1840s, meant that New Zealand was lucky enough to escape the worst form of British colonisation. In 1840 Lord Normanby would dispatch Captain Hobson to New Zealand with, for the standards of the time, progressive instructions to secure British sovereignty with the “free and intelligent consent” of Māori “according to their customary usages”. In plain English, secure British sovereignty on Māori terms. We know that this didn’t happen, and the Treaty of Waitangi went ahead on, at best, a misunderstanding, and at worst, deception. The English translation was a poor cousin to the Māori version.
The next best explanation is that the British settlers never quite beat iwi into submission. After the Musket Wars of the 1810s, 1820s and 1830s most iwi were heavily armed, well-drilled in the field, and (thanks to the humble potato) capable of waging sustained military campaigns. There were no easy pickings. This meant that, even if the settlers were keen on an official policy of genocide, they never had the means to enact one. In the end, European pathogens did a better job at reducing the Māori population and our hold on our land. Yet we’re unsure if this explanation, at least alone, is enough to explain why, as Māori, we were able to secure the political, economic and cultural power we exercise in 2021.
We think the better explanation is the simplest one – activism. In the 20th century, self-congratulatory Pākehā would tell each other that New Zealand had “the best race relations in the world”. But from this angle, the explanation is quite simple: Māori movements forced the government and Pākehā society to recognise that Māori had the right to kōhanga and kura kaupapa, to Māori broadcasting, to Treaty settlements for historic wrongs, and to a Treaty recognised at least in legislation.
These are the movements that Miller photographed, and they are the movements we can, in large part, thank for the political situation, however imperfect, that we find ourselves in today. These are the movements captured in spirit and in person by Miller, and the movements and people we must collectively acknowledge for the struggles that have taken us this far.