The Family of Aotearoa: a six-decade portrait of New Zealand – The book launch of “Ans Westra: a life in Photography” by Paul Moon

The launch of the biography Ans Westra: a life in Photography by Paul Moon (published by Massey University Press) was hosted by Scorpio books on Tuesday 11th June. The session consisted of a Q&A with Curator of the Alexander Turnbull Library photographic archive Louise Garrett, Paul Moon (the author), David Alsop (Director of Suite Gallery - Wellington) and Ans' daughter, Lisa.

Ans Westra

Ans Westra (1936-2023) is one of New Zealand’s most famous photographers. Born in Leiden (the Netherlands), her early life was marked by two particularly traumatic experiences: witnessing the death of a child being run over by a tank during the war years, and the divorce of her parents. Her mother remarried an abusive man and her father went to New Zealand. As a young girl, she struggled to form friendships and developed a strong artistic inclination. By adulthood, she qualified as an arts teacher in Rotterdam.

The touring exhibition “The Family of Man” (1955), which showcased 503 photographs from 68 different countries left a lasting impression on Ans Westra. Initially, she took on photography as a hobby; soon, she discovered it was her true calling and developed her own photographic style.

A few years later, she travelled to New Zealand to visit her father and started a successful career as a freelance photographer. Over the years, Ans Westra became a witness of New Zealand’s everyday life. Her work is a visual, social testimony, which spans over 60 years of Aotearoa in the 20th century.

Both Louise from the Alexander Turnbull Library and Suite Gallery director David Alsop described the challenges of managing this immense “living” photographic archive and the tremendous effort to catalogue and preserve such a vast collection (300.000 negatives, proof sheets, Master prints…) for future research and exhibitions. David (the manager of her photographic estate) also mentioned the ongoing interest from former subjects and/or surviving relatives to obtain a copy of an original print. It is a fine balancing act of sharing prints, while protecting the artist’s copyright and legacy.

On a personal level, Lisa shared a few personal and very funny anecdotes. She recalled how her mother lived for photography and remembered the endless hours patiently waiting in her mum’s car, while she was on assignments. The intimate anecdotes from a child/daughter’s perspective, not only made the audience smile, but also highlighted the continuous challenges faced by Ans as she tried to balance her artistic passion, professional development, and motherhood.


Speakers and book launches 

If you want to attend more book and writer related events at the library, check out our Library Speakers page.
Check out Scorpio Books' Events page to see any upcoming book launches.

Tanya Michils
Matuku Takotako: Sumner Centre