Fifty people set out with a ten dollar throw away camera to capture a slice of life in the North Hokianga. The results were truly extraordinary.
The North Hokianga 2006 Photographic Competition
There is a ritual which is usually followed when announcing the winners of a competition. First the lesser prizes are announced and then excitement builds as everyone wonders who the supreme award will go to. We want to reverse all that.
Our reason is that life is not about winners and losers. It is about participation. It is about everyone taking part, in their own way, which almost certainly will be different from everyone else's way.
This competition has not been about winners and losers. It is about a community reflecting on its own identity. Everyone who has participated is a winner. The only losers, as in life, are those who have not taken part.
Even those who managed to lose their cameras in the Mitimiti surf or dropped them off the side of their fishing boats have been winners. They have given us their stories even if they have not given us their photographs. Those stories will be passed down from one generation to the next. If the laughter lives on and some of the photographs get lost that would not be such a bad thing.
The real winner in this competition is the North Hokianga.
Life has moments of exquisite beauty, but there is agony too. There is joy, but also pain. We discover what we never could have imagined, but we also experience loss. Great photographs capture much more than an image. Great photographers, like great poets or great musicians touch our souls. Their images are evocative. We find ourselves saying "Yes. That is the way it is but I have never been able to express it as well as that."
Those who live in the Hokianga know that the school bus is a symbol of hope, but there is anguish too. The bus will take our children away to learn how to better themselves in life, but it will also take them away to learn someone else's stories. They will come to know many things, but they may also forget their whakapapa.
For a hundred years the school at Rangi Point thrived. The students learned about reading and writing, but they also learned about flounder and cicadas. Then the road came, and the school bus came, and now the students could sit on a stuffy claustrophobic bus when once the wind blew through their hair as they rode a horse to school. The school closed down. Once that school was that heart of the community for both young and old. Skills were passed down from one generation to the next. All that died. All over New Zealand small schools are dying. They are being killed by accountants who know nothing about life.
As they grow older the buses take our young people even further away. Mothers say farewell at the gate and will not see their children again for months, perhaps years. Sometimes our children will become great actors or musicians in Sydney or London. Sometimes they will be great warriors and die in some far off land for some cause which was not worthy of their blood.
The bus then is about loss, but it is also about returning. Coming home. Hokianga. A mother waiting at the side of the road to envelop in her arms a son she has not seen for many years. The bus is about people returning for a tangi, for hui, or for an unveiling. The bus coming from another marae. In the old days they always broke down along the way, and while they do not seem to do that any more, the memory is still there. Sitting on the side of the road while the engine was coaxed back into life. Getting back on again to continue on the journey.
The bus stop in the Hokianga is but a pause on a journey. We get off, the bus drives off in a cloud of dust and we find ourselves standing alone in the middle of nowhere. A dusty road. A windswept ridge. Brooding mountains. A tough place for strong people. Instead of bus shelters we have souwesters and gumboots. There is loneliness here. The lonely child waiting for the school bus on the windswept ridge. The loneliness of broken dreams. The unlocked door flapping in the wind.
The long drive is the thread which connects us to the outside world. Sometimes when the weather is real Hokianga weather that outside world will be cut off. Flooded roads. No electricity. No telephones. The emptiness of a vast and relentless sky. The promise that tonight, as the ruru call out, that sky will be once again crowded with stars fighting to find a little space for themselves. The passage of time which we read in the sky.
The locals still all greet each other when we pass on the road, because the people of the North Hokianga understand all these things. It is our whakapapa.
To capture all this in a single image on a $10 throw-away camera is a considerable achievement. I stand in awe of the winner. I gather she knows little about the technical aspects of photography, but she certainly knows a lot about life.
Photography at this level of excellence has nothing to do with technical skill. It springs straight from the heart.
You do not learn how to take a photograph. You learn how to love. How to see more than others see. It is possible that people not from the North Hokianga would not relate to the winning photograph. How could they understand? Culture in this sense is very local.
The winning photograph is not the postcard which the tourists will take away. It can only be understood by the flickering light of a candle in some lonely shack up in the Warawaras.
The bureaucrats or politicians who come from over the hill to run our lives would never understand this photograph, but that is an important lesson for them to learn. Quite apart from everything else this photograph is a political statement. The new Local Government Act makes "cultural sustainability" the primary task of Territorial Local Authorities. Any planner who is not able to take this photo should not be allowed to make decisions for us. You can only trust the person who first sees clearly.
This photograph explains why the ferry or the pontoons are so important. They have a spiritual dimension which has nothing to do with getting to a destination.
There is one question the more cynical among us might ask. "Was it a fluke?" The evidence provides the answer. The judges decided that no more than one prize should be given to one person, because there were so many excellent photographs. However we have decided to commend other photographs and we would like to commend two other photographs taken by the winner.
The first is the cow patiently waiting to be milked on the other side of the fence. It is quirky. It is puzzling. It is Hokianga. We are used to images from Europe of cows being milked in the middle of a paddock, but this is different. The barb wire protected by timber because it was fortunately too far to get to Kaikohe to sort out a conventional solution. Clearly the result works. The solution embodies a unique relationship between the cow, the farmer and the fence. This is definitely a postcard for tourists to take home. I certainly want a copy.
The second commendation is for the boy on the sheep. The smile. The horizon with the fence. Hokianga landscape. Another postcard. Tamariki.
The winner has presented a body of work with a strong sense of life in the North Hokianga. We believe there was no chance involved.
The photograph we have awarded the second prize to is more self-conscious and studied but it still is steeped in emotion. The formal composition comes from technical skill, but this is not why the photograph was a prizewinner.
We all know not to linger once the kai is on the table on a marae. Those who do find they have not got as far as the dessert before the trestle tables are being swept away to be neatly stacked against the walls of the wharekai. By the time the buses drive off everything is back in its place. The kegs and crates are stacked. The floor is swept and wet mopped.
At first glance it might seem that this photograph could be anywhere. Look again. In Otara there would be paper rubbish blowing around. In Porirua the gable detail would be different. The texture of the wall hints at vernacular earth building juxtaposed against colonial weatherboard. Cultures standing apart, and yet united by kegs and crates. The landscape is glimpsed between and the landscape is rough. So often the landscape of the Hokianga is just a glimpse through the window of a church or a wharenui. The photograph is concerned with carefully observed detail. In this sense this is an intellectual photograph. It gives form to ideas.
The emptiness is what is left after the last ferry has gone. The North Hokianga closes down early when there is no celebration in the hall. Early in the morning everything will spring back into life, but that time is yet to come. Even a dog would have destroyed the emptiness of this photograph.
The ordinary can be extraordinary. The simplicity of the photograph teaches us to leave out everything which is not essential to what we want to say.
There is also an understanding here of cinematic whakapapa. The crate of beer in the "Runaway". Those early images which remain in our memory. Stretched out on a mattress in the Io Marae watching Hone Tuwhare's "Return". The South Hokianga is slipping away now, but the North can keep the flame bright if only we can see what is happening. This is the key task of Local Government. In this sense this is also a very political photograph. I doubt that any planner talking about historical precincts would understand it.
Once again this is not a postcard for a tourist to take away. It is rather something to stuff in your own pack so that when you are sitting in some grubby London flat it will remind you of home. In London it is the salt in the New Zealand butter which makes you think of summers at the beach.
This photograph was also not a chance. The judges wish to give a Commendation to the patterns of cracked earth. Beauty is all around us but so often we do not see. This photograph invites us to look again.
We were only asked to give a first and second prize, but we could not resist also giving a $25 third prize.
The third prize is the wake trailing away behind a fishing boat. It is exquisitely beautiful.
Morning fog is a way of life in the Hokianga just as much as fishing is. The wake of a boat becomes a contemplative experience. All of life is here. These are the good moments when you can dream because the rest of the world does not exist. You are alone with a pattern on the water. A wise person would come all the way from New York to the North Hokianga to experience this.
Tourists will take away the exquisite postcard, but they will never understand what it feels like to have all these things in your bones.
The problem for the judges after selecting three prizes was that there were so many other winning photographs. We decided to acknowledge at least a few of these and present a few extra judges' awards.
We gave a $10 Award for the series of photographs of Kohukohu wharf in the fog.
The road sign suggesting that there was only one kilometre of bad road in the North Hokianga left me roaring with laughter. The logging trucks destroy the road out west a little faster than the Council can repair it. We gave $10 to the "funniest" photo.
The dead possum on the road said much about our environment. Some things are so common in our lives that we do not even notice them. Only the strangers ask. We gave $5 to the best "dead animal".
The Masonic Lodge just asks to be photographed, but the exceptional capturing of the idea of facade is not as easy as it looks. To then also capture such an exquisite blue sky was extraordinary. We gave $10 to the best "architectural" photo.
We also gave a Commendation to this photographer for the boy jumping off the wharf.
The tug of war was bursting with energy. We gave a $10 Award for the best "community photograph".
It is a Taniwha if you turn it upside down. We gave a $5 Award for the "best creature".
What would the Hokianga be without mangroves? We gave a $10 Award for the two dogs on the boat in mangroves. The composition of them looking at each other was preferred but the other photo won on technical grounds.
We also gave this photographer a Commendation for boat seen through the two mangrove trunks.
The horse on road was so archetypal. We gave a $10 Award in the hope that there will always be stock wandering around on North Hokianga roads.
The Robin Morrison $5 Award goes to the gate of Tauteihiihi Marae. The light is
We really wanted to go on but we had to stop somewhere.
The number of photographs capturing the exquisite beauty of the North Hokianga was extraordinary. We have recommended that more of these should become postcards if funding can be found.
We loved moments in a number of photographs. The curtain blowing across the open window. The mist hanging in the hills. The boats. The road signs. The ferry.
Taken together this competition was a wonderful overview of life in the North Hokianga.
No one who entered was a loser, and my hope is that no one feels disappointed. The community however is the real winner, and everyone who has participated has helped to make that community stronger. Every entrant should feel proud.
I have talked at some length about the few entries chosen for special recognition mostly because I think to North Hokianga is a very special place. We need to acknowledge that, because so often when strangers come they do not understand.
The judges would also like to congratulate the organisers and the sponsors. The competition was a brilliant idea, executed with a heady mix of panache and courage.
A leap of faith in ordinary people rather than professionals was involved. We judged blind of course but I understand that the result serves to reinforce the wonderful words of Margaret Mead at UN Habitat One in Vancouver. "Never assume that the little people cannot change the world. It has never been changed in any other way."
On behalf of the judging panel.
Third prize - wake of a fishing boat - $25
The road sign "funniest" photo - $10 Award.
The Masonic Lodge best "architectural" photo - $10 Award.
A Commendation for the boy jumping off the wharf.
The series of photographs of Kohukohu wharf in the fog - $10 Award.
The tug of war best "community photograph" - $10 Award.
The dogs on the boat in the mangroves - $10 Award.
A Commendation for boat seen through the two mangrove trunks.
The wandering stock - $10 Award.
The gate of Tauteihiihi Marae - The Robin Morrison $5 Award.
The dead possum best "dead animal" - $5 Award.
The "best creature" upside down Taniwha - $5 Award.