1000 Words is a Spinoff series talking to the photographers behind our most iconic political images. In this instalment, Don Rowe speaks to David White, the photographer who shot Colin Craig.
Following a failed attempt at the Auckland mayoralty in 2010, notorious goof and Auckland accountant Colin Craig founded and led the New Zealand Conservative Party, gaining 2.65% of the vote in his first national election and 3.97% in his second. In that time he also began a career as an amateur poet, penning myriad verse to his long-suffering press secretary Rachel MacGregor. Following sexual harassment allegations published on Cameron Slater’s Whale Oil blog, Craig resigned the party leadership, but it was only the beginning of his time in the press.
Almost since it began, we at The Spinoff have begged for an end to the Kafkaesque nightmare that is the Colin Craig defamation trials. The saga has featured a who’s who of New Zealand’s rogues, dorks and dinguses, limping wetly through the courts year by year, returning to the news cycle again and again like John Key and his bloody flag. This week a judge ruled Craig would not be allowed to cross-examine MacGregor for the umpteenth time, saving her from yet another interrogation by the mysterious Mr X.
But on a wintry afternoon years earlier they could be found atop Mount Eden, enjoying the crisp sunshine beneath azure skies, Colin lying in the grass, a smirk on his face, power on his mind, leaves on his pants.
The photographer was veteran David White, auteur of some of the finest, most revealing and most awkward political photographs New Zealand has ever produced. This is the story of that photo.
Tell me about your entrance to political photography, long before Craig came on the scene.
The first political picture I took that stood out, which really got me into political portraiture, was one of Helen Clark during Corngate. Politicians are notoriously difficult to photograph because they’ve got that exterior which is very hard to get behind and when you do get something that shows them in a more human light it does resonate with people. It definitely did with that image of Helen Clark because she was obviously really pissed off with what was going on and you could tell she was seething. You don’t often see that, you know? You don’t often see behind a politician’s poker face.
That wasn’t a posed portrait, right?
There’d been a press conference, this is going back a bit now, it would have been 2002 or 2003, and it was at a press conference where everybody had left, I was just packing up but I decided to stay. There was Helen Clark, the minister for conservation and David Lewis, her then-press secretary. They’d gone into a huddle, Lewis was side on with the minister with his back to me, but the striking feature was Helen Clark looking almost like Ebenezer Scrooge, just really intense. That shot is what got me into shooting political portraiture.
How do you think about composition in an environment like that where it’s fluid and you have to take the picture on the fly?
In a situation like that composition comes second to emotion. There was another one similar to that where I was on an early morning flight to Wellington about six or seven years ago, and as I was walking down the aisle I spotted Winston Peters sitting next to John Banks which is an odd combination – and only the night before Peters had ripped into John Banks over his political campaign and donations from Kim Dotcom on the radio. That had been quite big news. And so to see them sitting side-by-side, completely randomly, was a great moment. I went down, I got my camera, and I turned around, squeezed past everyone, and shot them. Winston Peters went off, and tried to say I couldn’t shoot him on the plane and he wanted my card but John Banks didn’t seem to mind. It was a great shot of their faces as this random guy is photographing them. Composition-wise it wasn’t great but the emotion was pretty good.
I guess the difference with the Colin Craig pictures, which are also extremely bizarre, is that those were composed. Tell me about that assignment.
It was in the run-up to the 2014 election and I’d been tasked with getting a collection of portraits we could turn into a social video. I had organised with him and his press secretary Rachel McGregor to meet somewhere in Mount Eden where there’s a wall I’ve been to before. It’s a nice backdrop when you’re using lights. So I did that and they were ok, and it was a nice sunny afternoon, a still wintry day, crisp and clear, and so I said let’s go up Mount Eden and see if we can get something a little different up there.
Colin Craig had recently lost a lot of weight and was very pleased with his new appearance and kept showing me images of him on his iPhone, before-and-after which, you know… he looked fairly different, so we started shooting and I said ‘Oh, can I get you here, the light is nice,’ and slowly – it wasn’t something I set out to do – he slowly got massaged into sitting and lying down in the grass. And Rachel, you always expect the comms person to jump in and say ‘hey, listen, I don’t think that’s right,’ and I was just waiting for that to happen but it never did.
And after it I didn’t really think too much of the shot as I was driving back down the hill. But it was only later on when people started looking at them that they started to grow a life of their own. There was no preordained idea to get him up in the grass at all. There was a great image of David Lange shot back in 1987 while the anti-nuclear stuff was going on for Time magazine, and it’s him sort of reclining back in the grass with a great big smile on his face and his big belly, and it was a beautiful shot, but the New Zealand press were quite unimpressed that our prime minister would be seen in that light. Some people have implied the images were manipulated but I didn’t set out to make him look one way or another.
Colin was very buoyant about the upcoming election. Rachel was there as well and looking back now it would have been interesting to photograph the two of them together considering what happened later down the track, but I didn’t sense anything of that at the time. She was just there as the comms director and so obviously the less I had to do with her the better. But you know, one thing leads to another, ‘can you just sit on the grass so I can get that sunlight behind you…’
The shots reveal something about the guy, right? What sort of qualities did you take from those pictures as you looked at them in the office?
After the picture ran I realised it was something he wasn’t going to be necessarily all that happy about. I do know that there was a court case being taken against him by somebody else, during the period of his campaign, and I did hear third-hand that he’d suggested that image was manipulated. And the other weird thing too is that a while later when Sean Plunket was the comms director for Gareth Morgan when he was running the TOP party, he wanted to know how he could get hold of the image and the copyright so that Gareth could somehow use it in a political ad. I think he wanted to put Gareth’s head on Colin Craig’s body. I’m not quite sure where they were going with it.
If we could only be so lucky to see that. So what makes a great political photograph?
Politicians know how to play the game and it’s very hard to get anything other than the normal, so you’ve always got your work cut out for you with politicians, and it’s usually an unguarded moment or something out of the ordinary. John Key was extremely good at never letting that happen. Although there was one of him after the election that he won, I think it was for Metro, and he was topless in his pool at home looking like something out of the Wolf of Wall Street.
Wolf of Dork Street. He does not come out of it looking cool.
I wish I had taken that shot. Whether John Key thought it was anything other than what it was I don’t know but I know it’s been used in a couple of posters about eating the rich since then so he probably doesn’t appreciate it now. Look I think it’s a shame that in New Zealand we don’t have an official, non-partisan political photographer that is shooting the leader on a day-to-day basis to create a historical document. We don’t have that in New Zealand, unfortunately. We’ve got comms people who take photos and tweet stuff out but it’s not a behind-the-scenes look at anything at all, the day-to-day life of our leader. It’d be an amazing document to build up. Look at what David Kennerly shot in the 70s in the US. Look at the pictures of Obama behind the scenes. It’s a shame we don’t have that historical archive being built up.
It leaves us reliant on pictures like the Cunliffe log where the only moments of vulnerability or authenticity have to be papped, almost. It’s a real shame.
I was actually down there that day that Peter Meecham got that shot, so I was down there in the morning and got a shot of David on his balcony from across the other side of the park. I sent that through, I was happy with it, he was on the phone, and I left because I had to take my son to the doctor. It wasn’t until the next day I saw the image and I was completely gutted. Initially I thought it had been set up, but I learned pretty soon after that that it wasn’t. That was an incredible photo, actually.
It was incredibly raw. I’ve had a few dealings with David Cunliffe, I remember I had to shoot him for the Listener once and Guyon Espiner was freelancing at the time. We met him in Titirangi and the plan was to take photos fishing on the rocks but he’d forgotten his gear so we went onto the beach. I said to him “Look, can I get you sitting here in the sand,” and he said “Oh no, if you use a picture like that the caption will be ‘all washed up’” and I said “OK what about up here on the grass” and he said “Na, na, na, na, if I allow you to take that photo the headline will be ‘a snake in the grass’” and so I did the shoot and I passed those two quotes on to Guyon, and they ended up in the intro of his story.
Two days later I had to photograph him again at the Labour party conference where he tried to overthrow David Shearer and he just walked up to me, shook my hand and said “I trust everybody once”. But I’m a journalist as much as I’m a photographer – if you’re going to say stuff like that to me, it’s going to end up in the story. It’s interesting!
You’ve taken many revealing portraits of people who aren’t politically naive, though. Look at the Len Brown Ngāti Whātua shot. How did you do that? Did you know you had something special?
I was there with Steve Kilgallon and it was the first interview post all that [the Auckland mayor had been revealed to be having an affair which included trysts inside the council chamber’s Ngāti Whātua Suite], around when he announced he was going to run for the mayoralty again. They said well, we’ll meet you in the mayor’s office in the town hall, so I met them there, and I said to Steve at the time it would be amazing if I got him in the Ngāti Whātua room, and we both just laughed. So we get there and he comes out and he took us into the room and he shut the door behind him so you couldn’t see the sign. I played around a bit and I opened the door so you could see the sign and I was expecting any minute that they would shut it down but they didn’t. And you know, it was just one of those moments. I never heard back from his comms director or himself, I’m not even sure if they were pissed off, but it was just one of those moments where everything comes together.
When you see Len Brown with a Ngāti Whātua sign behind him, you know you’ve nailed it.