For photographer Peter Quinn his assignments are often life-changing events. Even before you consider the subject matter of his assignments – spanning everything from gangs to whitebaiters to the history of Auckland’s Great South Road – the time and energy he devotes to his subjects can’t help but leave a lasting mark on his own life.
In 1994 he took on assignment to capture miners on the West Coast: to get the photos he wanted and to do justice to the story he moved his wife and baby daughter to the West Coast for six months.
The cover of New Zealand Geographic’s New Zealanders in Focus which features some of Peter Quinn’s work for the magazine over the past 20 or so years. The cover is Peter’s image of a Mines Rescue "Proto team" during a training drill in Greymouth, on the West Coast. “These are the guys (working coalminers themselves) who volunteer to enter the mine after an explosion or roof collapse and rescue, or more often than not, retrieve the remains of the victims.”
On his coalmining assignment, capturing the photo he wanted – the one that could express the tight bonds and the true sense of camaraderie among the miners – was its own unique challenge.
“I wanted to get a photo in one of the mine bathhouses because I could see it was one of the only ways to really communicate that relationship and those bonds in amidst that harsh environment. To get that image though you’re talking about walking in on half a dozen staunch, solid West Coast coalminers and pointing a camera at them while they’re in the shower together. Not the easiest.
“So I spent a few weeks going around looking for the perfect bathhouse and when I found the bathhouse in the Surprise Mine in Reefton, I was like ‘yep, this is the one’.
“The day of the shoot I hung a camera in the bathhouse so the lens could acclimatise and I wouldn’t have to wait around, or miss the shot, when we got back. I also spent the day underground with the guys so they’d get used to me and it wouldn’t feel like such an intrusion. Then at the end of the day we all got back together and I just starting shooting and got this frame. I don’t know that I can describe exactly why it works – but it tells the story and that’s the most important part of what I do.”
West Coast coalminers showering in the bathhouse at the Surprise Mine in Reefton after a day in the mine.
Another West Coast assignment – by virtue of Peter being in the right place at the right time – was the photography for a 1993 piece about whitebaiting “Bait” written by Keri Hulme. She famously described the pursuit of whitebait as a ‘religion’.
Pot-netters scooping for white bait at the mouth of the Waita River near Haast on each tidal surge. (Pot-netters have a solid wire frame basket which is different to the more commonly used sock net.)
Photography wasn’t always where Peter saw himself. “I had no intention of following it as a career and it wasn’t until my early 20s that I got absorbed in it.” At that point he sought training at the only photography course on offer at the time in Wellington. Even after his training he wasn’t sure how his career would play out given the idea of advertising and commercial shoots didn’t really appeal.
Then along came the chance to photograph the images for a book – Staunch: Inside New Zealand Gangs. Published in 1990, it now seen as one of the country’s iconic books with the images kept in Te Papa’s collections. It should have been Peter’s big break, but in the early years after its publication it didn’t turn out like that.
One of Peter Quinn’s images from the book Staunch: Inside New Zealand Gangs. Magog Motorcycle Club prospect taking his Harley for a test ride along the road from the Chapter's New Plymouth clubhouse after doing a bit of routine maintenance on it.
“A lot of photographers wait their whole life for a book but the way things turned out I started with a book. It seemed like it might have been a big break but actually when I read the text for the first time I was pretty nervous about some of the really quite defamatory things that had been written about some of the bike gangs – and I knew that weren’t likely to challenge them with a lawyer, they were more likely just to come after us for retribution – so I asked for my name to be taken off the cover and then went and hid for a few years while the dust settled.”
Peter took refuge on the West Coast and in the early 90s – with the resurgence of tourism – made his living taking photos for the industry: from caving to white water rafting, mountains and skifields.
While ‘hiding out’ on the West Coast he carried out the whitebaiting assignment for New Zealand Geographic and he’s been carrying out assignments for them ever since.
“New Zealand Geographic said we’re looking for photographers who want to grapple with the subject and learn about it and communicate it to our readers and who are prepared to do the research. That was just what I was looking for, the chance to tell the stories as I saw them rather than having an art director call you from their office at the other end of the country and tell you they want a photo of a bird, they want it in flight against the horizon – and then you find that kind of bird doesn’t even fly.”
More often than not Peter pitches his own ideas for the photography assignments that take up so much of his life.
A communal morning feast following a prayer service at a Sikh temple in Manurewa. This photo was captured as part of a New Zealand Geographic photo assignment looking at Great South Road and the ‘changing face of Auckland’.
“In early 2000 there was a big, national discussion going on about biculturalism and what was happening with it in New Zealand. My sense then was that the bigger issue was multiculturalism and the changing face of New Zealand and particularly Auckland.”
“I came up with the idea that the Great South Road would be a good way of approaching that narrative. I followed it for a couple of years looking at the different migrant communities that had made their way in and settled along it and made it their home.
“I also found that historically, Great South Road really is New Zealand’s national road – it’s the main road out of Auckland, it had been used by Governor Grey as a road to war, he’d actually specifically widened the road so he could send troops out into the Waikato. So it was such a great snapshot of New Zealand with the early colonial history along it and then by the 1960s it really became the ‘road to migration’ for Polynesian people as they came over from the islands and started settling along it and working in the freezing works in Otahuhu and places like that and then subsequently into the 90s where you’ve got more Asian communities starting to settle there. As I drove along the road and through the different suburbs along the Great South Road you could really see the distinct communities.”
Peter has now been carrying out assignments for New Zealand Geographic for the better part of 20 years. He jokes that being a photographer, one that devotes themselves to these massive assignments over months or years, requires a masochistic streak.
“Looking at it people might think I’m a glutton for punishment.”
Anyone that has seen his work though will appreciate the devotion that goes into each assignment and Peter’s gift for storytelling.
“To be a good photographer, I think more than anything, it is having something to say that’s important. Photography is a language, it’s about communication and communicating ideas and if you haven’t got any ideas and you’ve got nothing to say then you really need to go back and address that but if you’ve got that then you have to marry it up with an ability to make your ideas decipherable. It’s easy to take a photograph and no one understands it so you’ve got to get to a point where you’re thinking about your audience and how they’ll react and what will mean the most to them, what will tell them the story.”
“I believe a good storytelling photograph has to have been considered and thought through, even if the shot itself happens quickly, there will be an idea behind that shot that was the foundation for it and that might have happened days, weeks or even months before the photo was taken.”