From the anti-Vietnam war protests of the 1960s, the anti-apartheid and nuclear free movements of the 1970s and 1980s, indigenous land struggles of Māori, to more contemporary issues like the use of genetic modification and the sale of state-owned assets, John Miller has been a constant recorder of our turbulent times.
Asia-Pacific Journalism Report – By Karen MacKenzie
Documentary photographer John Miller of Ngapuhi descent has been capturing pivotal events in New Zealand’s contemporary history since he first picked up his uncle’s camera and photographed an anti-Vietnam War demonstration as a 16-year-old schoolboy in 1967.
Addressing a public gathering last week, hosted by the Pacific Media Centre at AUT University, Miller talked of some of the highlights of his 45-year career documenting political dissent and significant events in New Zealand.
He has been described as the most significant Māori photographer in the country.
“He has always had a nose and an eye for the what the main social change events that are happening and was there to photograph and record them for all of us,” says Greenpeace New Zealand executive director Bunny McDiarmid.
From the anti-Vietnam war protests of the 1960s, the anti-apartheid and nuclear free movements of the 1970s and 1980s, indigenous land struggles of Māori, to more contemporary issues like the use of genetic modification and the sale of state-owned assets, Miller has been a constant recorder of our turbulent times.
The history he has captured has been of people challenging the official viewpoint.
“I seem to have been performing the role of a sympathetic observer, insofar as I tend to support the causes that motivate such protests, rallies or meetings,” Miller once said in a Photoforum profile after winning a special NZ Media Peace Prize in 2003.
Some of Miller’s most memorable photographs are from his documentation of the 1981 Springbok Tour.
Most photographers at the time shot the tour in black and white, but Miller chose the “immediacy of colour”. According to him, the use of colour drags it out of a historical context.
Miller’s photographs from the front lines of the tour, Bastion Point and anti-nuclear protests are “among the most evocative and stirring from this period”, says Hamish Coney, a contemporary art, photography and popular culture specialist.
One of the reasons for Miller’s recent seminar was to shed light on the origins of the popular waiata Nga Iwi E, which has recently been adopted as the PMC’s “official” waiata.
From his extensive archive, Miller retrieved a series of black and white images he shot in the 1984, documenting the moment when a small group of Māori and Paheka musicians gathered at Rotorua Boys High School to write the first verse of the song.
It was the same year the Labour government announced its decision to ban nuclear-powered or armed ships from New Zealand waters, and the young Topp Twins can be seen in Miller’s photo above contributing to the composition with Māori musician Hirini Melbourne and other activists.
The waiata was planned for New Zealand’s official delegation to the fourth Pacific Festival of Arts in New Caledonia but due to escalating tension between the indigenous Kanaks and the French rulers, the festival was cancelled.
Nga Iwi E survived to became a protest song for the Nuclear-Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement, with its references to “being united as one like the Pacific Ocean (Kia kotahi ra te Moana-nui-a-kiwa) and to hold on firmly to your separate identity and compassion (Ki te mana motuhake me te aroha).
The waiata was bellowed out on the streets, often by the Topp Twins, and in hui around the country, right up to last visit of an American naval ship to New Zealand 29 years ago. It is now regarded as an integral part of how New Zealanders identify as a nation.
Returning to his archive, Miller showed a 1985 photo of the fresh-faced Rainbow Warrior crew on board the boat docked in Auckland’s Harbour.
Visible on the front deck are a young Mana Party leader Hone Harawira and first time deckhand Bunny McDiarmid, now head of Greenpeace New Zealand.
On that same afternoon, departing again from shooting black and white, Miller captured a series of coloured images featuring the paintings and murals that decorated the Rainbow Warrior.
It was a beautiful sunny day and the images seem to emphasise a naïve simplicity and optimism for a better world.
Like so much of Miller’s work, he captures a moment in time and then it all changes.
According to Miller: “If anything has changed, it is the realisation that many of the seemingly disparate issues protested against are actually interlocked.”
At other times he feels like nothing changes and remembers a sense of ground hog day when documenting Iraq war protests in 2003.
“I’m thinking here I go again photographing people against war, 30 years down the track.”
Miller’s Ngapuhi whakapapa has given him access to momentous events in Māoridom. From his first Nga Tamatoa, (the young Māori activist group), protest in 1971 to many subsequent land marches, he has witnessed it all.
“I photographed the land march coming down Lambton Quay in 1975 and I got an almost identical shot of the Hikoi traversing the street in 2004.
“In 29 years, most of the buildings had been knocked over and rebuilt, there has been a massive change in the urban landscape but not always the political landscape.”
Māori Queen’s tangi
Miller was one of only two photographers invited to film the tangi of the Māori Queen, Te Arikinui Te Atairangikaahu and he has recently returned from filming friend and celebrated artist Ralph Hotere’s tangi in Mitimiti.
“Having a bicultural background you understand protocol and the way you go about things and when it’s appropriate to film things and when it’s better to leave things be.”
He remembers that occasionally it has been a distinct disadvantage.
“Once I was blocked at Waitangi by an over zealous marae official who was pursuing a little personal vendetta, as our family had been against her family in a particular local land dispute!”
According to Auckland Art Gallery curator Ngahiraka Mason, “John is without a doubt the most significant Māori photographer in the country. He is also a very generous person and much loved in the community.”
Auckland Art Gallery owns a series of Miller’s 1973 photographs of Māori artists meeting at Te Kaha-nui-a-tiki Marae and Te Papa Tongawera museum also holds a selection of John’s work.
In recent years Miller’s archive has provided invaluable images for a number of Māori Television documentaries from Nga Tamatoa, to the Polynesian Panthers and Whawhai Waiata – Māori protest songs.
Miller is currently archiving his impressive collection and selecting images for an upcoming book.
“Lots of people have been asking me for years, ‘when are you going to put out a book,’ so it’s really great to have this project on.”
Miller’s photographic archive, which extends over more than four decades, reminds us who we were, and will inform new generations of what has gone before and how past events might relate to the present day.
How many images does he have?
“That will be an interesting surprise when we finish archiving, I haven’t ever counted – I took a 1000 of the Springbok Tour alone!”
Karen MacKenzie is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.