1000 Words is a new series talking to the photographers behind our most iconic political images. In the first instalment, Don Rowe speaks to Peter Meecham, photographer of the David Cunliffe log pictures.
In 2014, David Cunliffe led Labour to their worst election defeat in almost 100 years. It was a brutal affair. Forced up against a seasoned John Key, Cunliffe made many missteps, perhaps most typified by his now immortalised statement “I’m sorry for being a man” – a sentiment much less controversial now, five years later.
“Exclusive, candid images” the Weekend Herald called them, shots that revealed “the desolation of David Cunliffe”. Labour’s union backers had deserted the politician, the banner crowed, and John Tamihere was being held up as the expert to diagnose just WTF was wrong with the Labour party.
The shots encapsulated so much: an aggressive form of zero sum politics, the ultimate humanity of our public servants, and the public’s insatiable appetite for seeing a doofus get owned.
I spoke with Peter Meecham, the Herald photographer who won news photo of the year at the Canon Media Awards for those Cunliffe shots.
The Spinoff: Walk me through that day.
Peter Meecham: From my point of view, shit, I’ve been shooting news and sport for 30 years, and normally you arrive and you get something really mundane or you know, you’re on the political trail and you’re trying to get a telling image of them in a situation that they’re trying to control, and most of the time those images you’re not super happy with.
When I realised it was him on the beach I just couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘oh my god, this is just…’ It was so unbelievably fortuitous. I thought, ‘does he know I’m here and is he deliberately doing this?’ That was my initial reaction. I just thought ‘this is unreal’, I was shocked.
David Cunliffe lives in St Mary’s Bay just up the hill from where that was taken, and there’s a little greenbelt that goes down to the beach. I had been to his house once or twice before, and photographed around that area, and so when John Sefton who was the pictures editor at the time said ‘Pete, bloody Cunliffe, we haven’t seen much of him – do you wanna go around and see if he’s sitting on his deck talking to people or whatever?’ I thought yeah, that’s not a bad idea.
I went around there and I knew if I walked down this greenbelt that I could see into his backyard and probably get a look at the deck. I was looking around and I couldn’t see anyone but it looked like someone was home, and I didn’t have my camera on me deliberately because I didn’t want to give the game away if I was walking around with a long lens. I thought maybe I’d go down and have a look on the beach and see if I could see anything. As I walked down the stairs I looked down and I saw this guy sitting there on the beach rubbing his head and I thought, that’s unusual, he’s kind of familiar. And then I thought shit, that’s not Cunliffe, surely not, and I almost walked right down there. But I didn’t have a picture yet so I walked back up the hill, drove around to the next bay, and put on a really long lens, like a 500mm, and went for a stroll. I thought it was too good to be true, probably not him, but I gave it a go.
As I came around the corner I popped the lens on, and the first guy I saw was Simon Cunliffe, who is his cousin and press secretary. I used to work with Simon at The Press in Christchurch, and I thought that’s Simon, it must be David. Simon wandered off up the stairs and so I got a bit closer, shot a few frames, and had a look at the pictures and it was just staggering. I literally sat there for an hour and a half photographing him, thinking ‘My God, this is unbelievable.’
He looked like Robinson Crusoe or something, it was unbelievable. He had his trousers rolled up and everything and I was pinching myself. Is this for real? I got closer and closer and I can kept shooting so I had so much stuff. I was there for at least an hour and a half shooting him and at one point I rang John who’s a really understated guy, he doesn’t get excited about much, and I never like to call ahead bragging about what I’ve got, I just bring the pictures in, but I had to tell him. I said ‘John, this is unbelievable, I’ve got some pictures of David Cunliffe that are just staggering.’ He seemed a bit nonplussed.
I went to the office, Shayne [Currie] was pretty excited about it at the time, and it turned out they were fairly telling images I guess.
When you were looking down the barrel at it, what were the elements you were seeing that stuck out?
His body language. It was one of the few times where I could absolutely see the headline they would use. He looked like he’d been shipwrecked or like he was on an island, and there were all these big surfboard things up behind him with these beautiful colours, but he was in dress clothes, and his body language was incredibly downbeat and it was really a combination of things that made me think it was pretty dramatic stuff. Often when you shoot pictures you don’t think that sort of thing, you just try and frame it nicely and you don’t realise at the time how significant it is, especially political pictures. I don’t recall who shot the picture of Don Brash walking the plank but I’m sure they knew how significant it was, but mostly you don’t. It’s not always the case.
Were you feeling any sympathy?
I did. I actually felt really sorry for him, and I thought here’s this guy – we might not all agree with his policy or with how he was as a leader, not everyone would agree about that – but anyone who would have been there would have felt for him. This guy had given his guts, he’s clearly not in a good place, he’s fighting for his political career, that was clear even before I got there, and I really felt for him. I don’t know if he was ever that happy about the picture, his wife definitely wasn’t, she openly put the boot in on social media, she was not happy, but actually a lot of people said to me they felt sorry for him, and a couple of vehement National supporters even said ‘jeez that was a lot.’ I’d always found him good to deal with and a nice enough guy, and he was really taking it hard. He didn’t look like he was having much fun, that’s for sure.
I had a couple of people say it was a bit much, mostly people who were keen on Labour and David, who thought it was a bit harsh and I get that. You’ve just got to take that on the chin as a journalist. I didn’t ever directly hear from him.
How did you justify it?
I said I can see why people would be upset by it but equally plenty of people thought it revealed good character, not bad. Just because he was sad didn’t make it derogatory to him, to me it made him seem more human, and it showed that he cared. What else do you want from a politician except that they care about their country, and care about what they do? That’s how I answered it, but not everyone will see it that way.
Politicians do try and control what we see and say in the media. They try and control that and they try and get their message across. But they’ve got to take the good with the bad. When things don’t go their way they’ve got to accept that they’re not going to win every time. I think most senior politicians accept that it’ll be good and bad in the media and they just move on, but some of them are very precious and they don’t take things too well. Rob Muldoon was never great.
Imagine being precious but also willing to go on camera just shitfaced and call an election.
Great, right? That snap election produced some absolutely brilliant photos of Rob Muldoon when he’d been drinking. There’s one where he’s looking really glum and circumspect and he’s got a glass of gin in his hand and it’s classic stuff. At the time I’m not sure whether people outright said he was drunk, but everyone knew.
I can remember going and photographing Bill Birch, the finance minister at the time, and he was doing a wander around town and he wandered past Cheap Skates, and he didn’t realise the framing, and it went into the paper. Helen Clarke in about 2001 or 2001 did the same thing in Southland, she was on the election beat and kissing babies and all that over the top stuff, and there was a sign outside ‘we’ve gone absolutely bananas’. Trying to get politicians when they’re doing stuff that’s telling is really hard to do. David White is a master at it. I remember with the Colin Craig in the grass picture he came back to the newsroom like ‘holy shit, look at this’.
How does it rank in your career?
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I could publish a book about the shots I’ve missed. I would have a whole book of ‘well this is 10 minutes after this, and this is when I just missed that’, but Cunliffe was one of those times where you know you’ve got something spectacular. But to be honest with you, I’ve never been one to openly chase politicians, I prefer to photograph the average people in society. I think they’re more interesting. I find New Zealanders just as interesting as any politician and that’s what I like to shoot. I’ve never been based in Wellington as a political photographer, and that’s why it’s memorable. It’s a photo of human. I’d hope that David might see it as humanising in hindsight.
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