1000 Words is a Spinoff series talking to the photographers behind our most iconic political images. In this instalment, Don Rowe speaks to Chris McKeen, the photographer who shot Pania Newton at Ihumātao.
The story of Ihumātao is, in a certain sense, one of timing and potentiality. At a moment of ascension for a new generation of wahine Māori, and amidst an international conversation on indigenous land rights, decolonisation and reparation, a movement championed by a young Māori woman to protect stolen land seems perfectly poised to capture the public’s attention.
Pania Newton, the charismatic lawyer and activist, has been the face of the occupation at Ihumātao since 2016. Newton, who has lived on the whenua for almost three years, seemed to be everywhere at once, working until her voice was all but gone, then appearing unflappable to debate on morning TV. Facing opposition from the state, from Māori leaders, and from interests within her own hapū, Newton led a peaceful occupation of the whenua, facing down multinational corporates from inside a powerless caravan.
But two years before the eyes of the world turned to Ihumātao, Chris McKeen captured a prescient image of Newton sitting atop Puketāpapa a Hape, her ancestral maunga. The image, which ran in a Stuff celebration of 125 years of suffrage, shows Newton cloaked and defiant, feminine, grounded, strong. Her korowai flows into the long grass, storm clouds roil off the Manukau Harbour behind her. Newton looks west, the sky aflame with the last light of the day.
Soon the maunga would watch over the burning ahi kā of a tent village, cloaked under the flag of tino rangatiratanga, as the deprivation of Māori at the hands of the Crown was reckoned with once again.
Few could have foreseen the movement which would grow in the shadow of Puketāpapa a Hape, swelling by the hour, an inexorable, undeniable call to action. But beside the Ōtuataua Stonefields, McKeen knew he had captured something special.
Tell me about your return to New Zealand. You came home and took portraits of another young leader shortly before her entrance into the mainstream.
I had just spent eight years in Sydney, starting off as a freelancer for a bit and then I got a staff position with Newscorp, working for Uncle Rupert. It’s a political organisation and they definitely have their own points of view but I got sent away on some amazing assignments and worked with some amazing people, so Newscorp, for what it is, I really benefited from my time there. I was really lucky.
Then we came home to be with our family and one of my first jobs at Stuff was to shoot Chlöe Swarbrick, right up on Mount Eden where David White shot Colin Craig. She said “you’re not going to make me sit in the grass, are you?” but I had no idea at that point who Craig was.
There is a clear parallel between Chlöe and Pania. They’re both very intelligent, very determined, very driven, very passionate, and they could have gone on to clean up in the corporate world. But instead they both turned their mind towards something which speaks to them as a problem that needs fixing.
Chlöe was running for mayor of Auckland and so was more overtly political. Did you feel when you took these photos of Pania that her future might trend that way?
Jonathan Milne at the time had engaged a freelancer to write this article about what was happening out in the Stonefields, and so I went out to shoot a few portraits, and there was definitely something there. She was playing the long game. It wasn’t just that she was going to be in a newspaper article and wait and see what happened – she was planning a campaign, not a battle. She has been very careful not to use combative language, for example. She’s always maintained it should be a peaceful occupation. She was already looking at what could happen a couple of steps ahead.
The Ōtuataua Stonefields is a magical place. It’s a phenomenal place. And there is something there. I had an idea of a photoshoot that I wanted to try and execute and it was based on the inclusion of a full moon in a portrait. I’d always had this concept ticking over in the back of my mind and hadn’t had the chance to really execute it. Then there was talk of a super moon that was going to be occurring and I thought ‘ok, the moon is going to be bigger, that could be beneficial,’ so let’s have a look at what else we need to do to make this happen.
What did that process look like?
There’s a website I use that plots the trajectory of the sun and the moon from any given point on the planet, including the altitude and angle above the horizon. So, for example, you know that on July 23rd, 2014, at 12.15pm, the sun was at this particular angle and this high up above the horizon. I knew that the maunga at Ihumātao is fairly open in the paddocks and the fields around it. There’s a couple of treelines and stuff, but I thought that if I could get Pania up on top of the maunga, and I shot with a long lens, I’d be able to sit right back and frame up a beautiful picture with the moon in the background and her up on her iwi land, and I thought it would be quite nice.
So I got out there with a big long lens, and knowing I wouldn’t need anything else, I left it all in the car. I asked her to bring the korowai that she was wearing, because it adds a cultural reference, it adds a degree of gravitas, and from what I understand, korowai carry a lot of mana. I thought the actions she was taking to preserve this land would be respected by her people and so it didn’t feel inappropriate.
Ihumātao is right on the edge of the Manukau Harbour, which isn’t exactly known for its calm days and tropical weather. I was sitting 120m or so from Pania and her support person, who was keeping her company and holding her phone and what-not. I was facing East, the moon was coming up behind, it was late in the afternoon but not dark, and so as the moon started to rise, I just realised that it wasn’t getting as big as I wanted. There are a few fairly gamey shots of Pania holding the moon which were more of that stereotypical, ticking the box stuff. There are also some where she’s got the moon as a halo, which I thought was quite nice. There was also a bit of flash being bumped in – we’ve got a wireless system, so I could be 100m away and the camera is talking to the flash unit, which I had her friend holding.
Everything was coming along nicely and I was getting some nice frames, and then I noticed the colour starting to change. There was this flash of warm light hitting Pania, and the grass, and she began to sing a waiata with hand actions, and it was incredibly moving.
Pania isn’t a model, she’s a lawyer and she’s passionate about her work out on the land, and so to persuade someone to stand up and work in front of a camera when it’s not what they do, we’re fairly lucky when people agree to pose up for us.
I was thinking about how I could make the most out of this beautiful warm light, and I realised that because the light was falling on her, it wasn’t falling on the sky, and that’s why it looks dark and blue in the background but the colour temperature of the sun is this gorgeous warmth. I turned around to see what the sun was doing weather-wise and basically the sky was on fire behind me.
The sun sun was hitting the cloud in exactly the right way, just as it was about to sink below the horizon, so I bolted around yelling directions to Pania, got her to push around to another part of the maunga, and lay down in the grass with the long lense trying to get the silhouette. I was yelling directions to her offsider about where I wanted the flash to be held, how high up it needed to be done, all that noise. And as I was photographing the sun was dipping, the light got warmer and warmer, and all of a sudden Pania was just radiant.
So I had this series of pictures and I tucked them away on a hard drive but it just wasn’t topical enough at the time of shooting it. There just wasn’t anything that spoke to the degree of newsworthiness or timeliness. So I tucked them away for ages and then the 125th anniversary of suffrage came about.
Did you have any sense at that point of what was going to go down, and the role that Pania would come to inhabit?
I thought that something was going to happen. Whether it was going to be something like the Bastion Point occupation or whether it was going to be a continued slow burn occupation, when I was going out there to other meetings and rallies, there was no question whether or not SOUL were going to back down. Pania was always part of that driving force when I went out there. People would refer, and defer, to Pania.
From a media perspective, she’s well-spoken, she’s Māori, she’s educated, she’s passionate, and she’s a lot of things that intimidate certain people. And so what she’s doing and what she’s given up to do it, is incredible. I have a lot of respect for that. I always knew she’d be in the mix.
Could you talk a little bit about the difference between capturing adversarial, live-action protest photos, and the role of a photographer in documenting and chronicling these movements through a more artistic shot?
Pania and SOUL are incredibly self-aware and for a number of reasons they want to avoid the combative and divisive nature that some photos can paint of movements. I think their approach has garnered a huge degree of respect across the country and across the world because of its lack of offensive action. People weren’t going out to sabotage vehicles or damage property.
As a photographer, it’s been an amazing couple of years of regular visits watching this go from people who have their marae just down the road and a few other locals from Māngere Bridge to snowballing into people coming from around the country, then around the world, to support what Pania is doing. To see that transition and the passion for a mission to try and retain this piece of land that was confiscated, has been farmed, and now stands to be developed on – it’s been amazing to photograph the changes as they’ve come through.
It’s an incredible, prescient photo given it was taken before everything properly kicked off out there. It’s a beautiful photo too – she’s in this korowai which conveys a real sense of mana, and she’s not soft, or helpless, but certainly feminine. There’s a real power to the image. Can you talk a bit about the composition?
Having the korowai off the shoulder with her hair up means there’s a lot of shoulder and neck and that does provide an element of fragility and femininity, but that said, the korowai provides strength and mana and respect, too. The textures of the korowai really lent itself to the grass of the land, the storm clouds in the background add an element, the fire in the sky referencing what could be coming, she’s got her chin up and she’s strong and she’s determined.
I try not to coach portraits too much. When I try and take portraits I’m trying to be fairly minimal in my direction, and sometimes that’s successful and sometimes it’s not, but this is one series of photos in which I think my minimal direction has worked really well with Pania’s strength and her determination and her sheer personality.
The photo has been used by other artists and painters and graffiti artists who have put their own spin and artwork on different images to motivate and tell a story about what has been happening Ihumātao. That’s really flattering as well. I’ll be flicking through social media or whatever and it pops up and it’s her, with their creative spin, telling their story, which I love.
It’s the synchronicity of everything falling into place that made for some really good photos, and then all it was missing was the fire that was lit when the protectors moved in to protect the land, and bam, Ihumātao is on everyone’s lips. People know about what’s happening and who Pania is and what the protectors and doing, so I’m just really glad to have taken it.