“We really thank the Jowitt family for sharing with us their son – his life, and passion for us and the Pacific.” Reverend Strickson-Pua pays tribute to Glenn Jowitt in an Asia-Pacific Journalism report.
Special Report – By Eva Corlett
New Zealand photographer Glenn Jowitt dedicated his working life to capturing the brilliance of Pasifika culture and challenging traditional depictions of the Pacific community.
His explosively colourful Pacific images came during a time when black and white photography echoed the growing polarity between the Pacific and Pākehā communities in early 1980s Auckland.
For more than 30 years, Jowitt developed an extensive body of work through photographing the ceremonious and vibrant aspects of Auckland’s Pasifika community, both here and abroad.
Te Papa’s photographic curator Athol McCredie says the value of Jowitt’s photography of Pacific cultures, is in part, that he did it for so long and so consistently.
“Glenn made a commitment to the Pacific. Like Ans Westra’s photographs of Māori in the 1960s and 70s, with the passage of time, his work has become historical,” he says.
In his own words, Glenn Jowitt sought to “generate photographs that would create a greater appreciation and understanding of the Polynesian cultures around us in Auckland and the Pacific”.
Artist Claudia Jowitt, Glenn’s niece, says he talked about the “friendly camera”.
“It was about celebrating culture. When he started 32 years ago, there was such negativity towards the Pasifika population. He said we needed to be celebrating all the great things about our Pacific neighbours. It was always about inclusion.”
Although Jowitt didn’t formally distinguish himself as either a photojournalist or an artist, his work floated between these two disciplines.
“He’s more of an artist than a documenter”, says Claudia Jowitt.
“He wasn’t this cold eye – he was involved.”
Glenn Jowitt was aware that he was a Pākehā man coming in to these communities to photograph, she says.
“But he learnt quite rapidly that you had to be going there with the permission of the elders. Otherwise it becomes purely documentation rather than an inclusion in the whole dialogue that’s going on.”
McCredie says Jowitt’s work challenged traditional touristic approaches to photographing Pacific cultures.
“This is a bit like anthropological work, with the difference that it concentrates on the visual – on making a striking or compelling image and telling stories.”
His work was also an extension and a challenge to the anthropological approach to Pacific cultures, he says.
“His photographs brought the lives of a group of people to the attention of the dominant culture.
“I think this was his mission, to say, ‘here are these people whose culture, practices, appearance and values are different from ‘ours’ (meaning the culture he came from), and they are amazing and wonderful, and have things to teach us’.”
Between 2004 and 2005 Glenn worked alongside anthropologists Susanne Kuechler and Graeme Were to produce the book Pacific Pattern – a comprehensive text identifying pattern within crafts, architecture and clothing throughout the Pacific Islands.
“We commissioned Glenn for this project because he had a tremendous reputation for capturing the creativity and ingenuity of people from the islands,” says Kuechler.
The authors chose Jowitt for his meticulous attention to detail, saying he was careful to record the names of the people he photographed. He said it was important to credit them in his work, and to make sure that photographs and books were gifted or returned.
Jowitt’s friend of many years, Reverend Mua Strickson-Pua, says, “we always used to joke – an indigenous joke – ‘everyone’s got an anthropologist, but guess what, we’ve got a photographer’.”
Reverend Strickson-Pua first met Jowitt at an art outreach programme in the early 1980s alongside Matua Don Soloman. He was asked to help co-ordinate contacts with family in Samoa for Glenn Jowitt. This marked the beginning of a life-long friendship between the two.
Jowitt captured photos of Reverend Strickson-Pua’s family, both in Auckland and Samoa, across three generations.
“He was very perceptive, he was really aware that the landscape had changed.
“So there was us, fighting to survive, whereas Glenn could already see that 30 years down the track [the] input of our people to this country was going to be quite incredible.
“He was aware now he had the opportunity to play the role of being a connector and helping people with that whole exchange of ideas, beliefs and experiences so that people could get on and work together.”
Jowitt’s 1983 exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery Here and There was the first major photographic essay focused on Polynesian life in Auckland.
“What we hadn’t realised at the time was when those elders passed away 30 years ago…Glenn’s photos became iconic, and they became very important to our family”, says Reverend Stickson-Pua.
Fiji-born Auckland-based artist and curator Ema Tavola connected with those early images when she first arrived in New Zealand in the early 1990s.
“That body of work is so important, so beautiful. It is a 30-year-old historical snapshot,” she says.
“The 1990s saw in Pacific cultural trends – Jowitt pre-empted that in a way.”
Tavola also acknowledges the importance of not only the documentation of those communities but also how it reveals the practice of documentation at that time – something she believes has altered dramatically.
She says the politics of representation have shifted, especially with the accessibility of cameras, and the internet.
“Pacific people photograph themselves in different ways now.”
Claudia Jowitt says her uncle was always cautious when he came to representing the Pacific.
“There is a bad history, in terms of the Western eye…but I think he was always playing a secondary role to what was going on – rather than it being about him. He would get up take the photos and then quickly sit down because he wouldn’t want to interrupt.”
Glenn Jowitt established long-lasting and personal relationships with the subjects of his photos and was often invited to birthdays, weddings and ceremonies.
“He was very aware he belonged. As a Palagi, he loved that he earned his right to be at the gatherings, was known in the community and was a member”, says Reverend Strickson-Pua.
Jowitt too, reaped the benefits of the cross-cultural realities, experiences and insights. He expressed opinions on cultural issues and embraced the physicality of Pacific culture, often drawing his own family into a more community minded way of living.
“One thing our people loved about him was that he loved the Pacific. That came through in his works, the way he expressed himself.
‘Ally for indigenous’
“He knew it was part of his role to be an ally for the indigenous.
“We really thank the Jowitt family for sharing with us their son – his life, and passion for us and the Pacific.”
Glenn Jowitt died suddenly at his Grey Lynn home on July 23.
A collection of his photographs are currently exhibiting at the Pah Homestead, TSB Bank Wallace Arts Centre.
Eva Corlett is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist from AUT University on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course.