Ans Westra, a Dutch-born photographer who created the most comprehensive record of New Zealand’s social history, comprising more than 300,000 powerful images, died on Feb. 26 at her home outside Wellington, New Zealand’s capital. She was 86.
The cause was cardiac complications, said David Alsop of Suite Gallery in Wellington, her friend and gallerist.
From her arrival in New Zealand more than six decades ago until the end of her life, Ms. Westra chronicled the lives of her compatriots with unflinching determination in frames that were praised for their realism and spontaneity. The subjects of her Rolleiflex camera typically fell outside the white conservative New Zealand mainstream, including Māori, New Zealand’s Indigenous people.
Her wide-ranging focus sometimes led her into controversy.
“Washday at the Pa,” her 1964 book about a rural Māori family with nine children living in poverty, was to be distributed in New Zealand schools. But it became a “political football,” as she would later describe it, and all 38,000 copies were recalled, and many were pulped, after the Māori Women’s Welfare League said that the images cast Māori in an unfair and unflattering light.
Yet Ray Ahipene-Mercer, whose mother had campaigned against the book, said Ms. Westra’s images possessed a rare candor, and that the controversy had been an early example of “what is now universal in Māori circles — ‘nothing about us without us.’”
“She saw us,” he said at a memorial service for Ms. Westra in Wellington, “and reflected us back on ourselves.”
Anna Jacoba Westra was born on April 28, 1936, in the western Dutch city of Leiden. The only child of Pieter Westra, a jewelry merchant, and Hendrika van Doorn, a storekeeper, she recalled a lonely childhood in which she learned to amuse herself.
She was first exposed to photography by her stepfather, who had a Leica camera. A more formative experience came in 1956, when she saw the traveling exhibition “The Family of Man,” which across more than 500 photographs sought to portray the universal human condition.
The show would leave a lasting impact on her choice of style and themes, which were sometimes described as intimate or humanist by her fans and sentimental by her detractors.
In 1957, Ms. Westra graduated from Industrieschool voor Meisjes, a women’s technical college in Rotterdam, with a diploma in arts and crafts teaching. That same year she went to New Zealand to visit her father, who had relocated to Auckland, the country’s largest city, after the dissolution of her parents’ marriage.
Ms. Westra hoped to create a record of the lives of Indigenous New Zealanders that reflected a people in flux, amid intensive urbanization and forced assimilation. Unlike the hackneyed images of Māori created for the tourist market, “my pictures were more natural,” she said in an interview with Art New Zealand magazine in 2013, adding, “I was wanting to observe life as it happened, without interrupting it as much as possible.”
After working at a pottery factory in West Auckland, Ms. Westra moved to Wellington, where she took a job in a camera shop until she had saved enough money to purchase a secondhand Volkswagen, allowing her to more easily photograph life in rural New Zealand.
By 1962 Ms. Westra was a full-time freelance photographer, traveling around the country, as well as to Tonga and the Philippines, and selling her images to a magazine run by the Department of Māori Affairs and to publications intended for schools. The fees she was paid typically just covered her expenses.
Over the decades that followed, Ms. Westra doggedly recorded life in New Zealand, training her lens on gang members, holidaymakers, rugby players, Māori land rights activists, Islamic New Zealanders, sex workers and many other groups. Snapping from the sidelines, she was an uncommon presence, standing 5 feet 10 inches tall and speaking with a strong Dutch accent, which she retained for the rest of her life.
A single mother of three children, Ms. Westra never married and never found alternate employment; she eked out a frugal existence throughout the 1960s and ’70s as a freelancer. She struggled at times with her mental health, and she was briefly admitted to a psychiatric ward in the early 1990s.
Photography remained at the heart of her life: Her children often recalled being piled into the back seat of her car to accompany her to marae (Māori meeting houses) for shoots, and living in homes where a room was always reserved for developing film. She celebrated what she saw as her valuable outsider’s gaze — one that gave her distance, even as it later led to criticism.
“I can understand where they are coming from, their questioning it. Why I am the one who has the validity to document them?” she said of her photographs of Māori in the Art New Zealand interview. “I find that being an outsider gives you a clearer vision, but I can understand that questioning of whether my approach the right one.”
After “Washday in the Pa,” Ms. Westra produced images for multiple books. While “Māori” (1967) and “Whaiora: The Pursuit of Life” (1985), which was written with Kāterina Mataira, a Māori writer, again focused on Indigenous New Zealanders, “Notes on the Country I Live In,” published in 1972, took a broader view of society. And “Ngā Tau ki Muri: Our Future,” a full-color book published in 2013, focused on environmental degradation in the New Zealand countryside.
As Ms. Westra’s archive grew and she became more established in the New Zealand art world, she began to exhibit her work more widely. In 1985 she established a relationship with the national Alexander Turnbull Library, which retains her black-and-white negatives. Her images have been exhibited at galleries around the world, including a two-month solo show at the Manhattan photography gallery Anastasia Photo that began in December 2019. She has also been the subject of books and documentaries.
Ms. Westra is survived by her three children, Erik John Westra, Lisa Christina van Hulst and Adrian Jacob van Hulst; six grandchildren; and her half sister, Yvonne van Westra.
In 2013, Ms. Westra went on a six-week road trip around New Zealand accompanied by Mr. Alsop, her gallerist, in which she revisited many of the communities she had captured in the 1960s and ’70s, including the village where she had shot photographs for “Washday at the Pa.”
Spending a week in each place, she held exhibitions and returned many of her images to her subjects and their descendants.
“It was like bringing the past to the present, through the photographs,” Mr. Alsop said in a phone interview. “That was really what we came to do.”