The cover image of Ki te Kapu o Taku Ringa (In the Palm of my Hand) a book and photo exhibition by Tom Roa and Rodrigo Hill. (Photo: Rodrigo Hill)

There’s no end to the photographs that have been taken of all things Māori — images from the outside looking in.

But what does it mean to photograph from within te ao Māori? To decolonise the camera and try to capture what can’t be easily seen?

That’s something photographer Dr Rodrigo Hill has been working on with Tainui rangatira Dr Tom Roa. Here they are in conversation with Siena Yates about their new photography exhibition and accompanying book of images, Ki Te Kapu o Taku Ringa.


Kia ora, kōrua. What does it mean to decolonise the lens? And in relation to landscape photography, in particular?

Tom: Photography has made a big leap from being a way to record reality or document exactly what is in front of you, to a way to capture context, stories, interpretation, and meanings.

You can easily look at a photo and go: “Oh that’s a nice photo of the forest,” and put it back down. Or you can wonder: “Why has this particular photo been taken of this particular forest?”

From a Māori point of view, that’s the question we’re asking with this new work.

A Maōri photograph is not a pretty picture to be sold to a tourist. It’s about the whakapapa and the mana of what’s in the picture. It’s asking: What about the people who belong to the space that’s being photographed? What are their rights? What about the rights of the space itself? Of the flora and fauna in it? And how do we ensure that everything that’s part of that space has its mana properly acknowledged?

These are questions of spirituality, power, context, connections and emotions. So we’re not just talking about the physical place, but all of those interrelationships and the context that are part of the space being photographed.

Rodrigo: It’s a bit like trying to photograph the invisible. You can’t necessarily see it, but that context is there regardless — the pieces are rubbing up against each other all the time.

Tom: Many of the images we’ve included in the book look like they could be anywhere in Aotearoa, and at first glance, maybe you feel you have no interest in them. But, for the discerning viewer who goes: “Hmm, maybe I should find out more about this,” there is the chance to learn about the context, which changes everything about the way you interact with the image.

Can you give me an example of an image that, to you, captures the invisible?

Rodrigo: There’s a photo I made when I was doing my PhD project on the Waikato River. It shows a small white dog standing on the riverbank, and it’s inspired by the story of how the Waikato River was created.

Tom: For those who don’t know, the story is about Taupiri, the sacred mountain of Waikato. She lived with her brother Tongariro in the middle of the North Island until she married Pirongia and came to live here in the Waikato.

One day, Taupiri became unwell. She sent a messenger and his little white dog to Tongariro to ask him to send her healing waters. Tongariro caused a spring to come out from him. He sent this rivulet through Lake Taupo and then on through the space that the Waikato River occupies now. But the Waikato ran away and started to go towards the Coromandel — and that’s where the little white dog comes in, because it drove the river back on course until it came past Taupiri.

She was healed and then sent the river on, through to the port, to connect all the spaces and people of Waikato. That’s why the Waikato River is considered a healing source.

Rodrigo: Knowing that story got me looking at new ways of trying to honour the river and the people through photography. That meant moving away from the more traditional landscape model of photographing the river with the city in the background or the nice sunset light. I ended up making this photo of a little white dog next to the river, instead, which really connects to the story.

The little white dog photo made to express aspects of Waikato River history. (Photo: Rodrigo Hill)

How did you go about deciding what to capture, and then gathering the background and context for each image?

Tom: We focused on wānanga, and the idea of wānanga as a space for sharing ideas and reflections. So we asked various people — in particular, Maniapoto and Te Rohe Pōtae — to wānanga with us, and give us advice on which spaces to photograph.

The story of the space from a mana whenua perspective guided the pre-photography. Then we’d go with them to the physical location. Another wānanga would take place which included karakia to free the space and make sure that its mauri, and the mauri of its people, were retained. And after the photography finished, there would be another wānanga to look at what story the photograph was telling.

Manaaki is a big part of the process. Not just how we manaaki the space and its people, but how those people manaaki us in the sharing of their stories.

Rodrigo: A good example is the photograph of Te Anaureure, the cave where Chief Maniapoto lived toward the end of his life. It’s one of those photos that was only possible because of the wānanga. I had access to places that I wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise, because everything was done with mana whenua guiding the process.

The image of Te Anaureure, the cave where Chief Maniapoto lived for a time. (Photo: Rodrigo Hill)

If you simply google “Maniapoto’s cave”, you’ll come across a black and white photograph of the outside of the cave. Quite a simple image, from a straight-on view. But we went inside and photographed the little pond that’s there, because there’s a story we were trying to tell.

The story goes back to when Chief Maniapoto lived there. He was said to have had an albino eel as a pet that lived in that pond. And if you look at the photo carefully, you can see in the bottom left-hand side of the pool, there’s a white shape which is a reference to a white eel.

It doesn’t necessarily look like an eel, but it brings the presence and the mana of the eel, and of the story, to the image.

A photo like that wouldn’t have been possible without the people of that place. Aside from anything else, there’s the fact that I wouldn’t have even known how to get there! Even if I did, no one can visit without permission from the Green family, who are the kaitiaki of that area. They took us there and stayed with me for hours, over the course of two visits.

Bridge over Waipā River. (Photo: Rodrigo Hill)

Can you tell me about the photo of the bridge? It’s one of those images that, like you said, could be a bridge anywhere in Aotearoa. So why this bridge, and why this particular composition?

Tom: You’re right, it could be anywhere. It’s a bridge over the Waipā River, and the photograph is deliberately taken from the bottom to get closer to the story we wanted to tell.

That bridge once crossed the border between Pākehā New Zealand and Māori New Zealand in the King Country, which formed when Waikato was invaded. King Tawhiao and many other Waikato chiefs and their people moved to Te Nehenehenui with their Maniapoto relations. Some people say they were refugees — but I reject that. To me, they came to stay with whānau. And you don’t treat your whānau as refugees, they’re just part of the family.

When they moved there, Tawhiao and the Maniapoto chiefs declared an aukati: they laid down the border and said that if anybody inside that border was deemed unfriendly to King Tawhiao and to his chiefs, they’d be booted out. And if anybody wanted to come in, they should seek permission.

Of course, some land surveyors didn’t seek permission. They just came in and started to survey. So they were politely escorted out. They came back a second time, and for a second time they were politely escorted out, but they were also told: “If you come back, we’ll shoot you.”

They came back. They were shot.

So the bridge today marks that border. This is where those surveyors, and anyone else, would’ve entered that space. But if you don’t know the context, the image means nothing to you. It’s just a bridge.

Normally, a photo like this would be taken showing the full span of the bridge, looking down the Waipā River — a lovely scenic shot. But we deliberately took the image from this angle to get closer to the awa, closer to the story, closer to where the very first poukai was held, less than 100 yards away.

It’s a special place, but you wouldn’t know unless you know. There’s no plaque there that says: “This is a special place.” That’s the kind of context you only get by getting to know the space, its people, and their whakapapa.

For me, that’s what this project is about. I hope it can be a kind of conscientising for anybody who cares to listen. So that next time they pull out their phones to capture a moment, they don’t think only about what’s in front of them at that moment, but reflect on everything that’s unseen too.

Tom Roa and Rodrigo Hill at the exhibition and book launch in Ōtorahanga. (Photo supplied)

Dr Tom Roa (Ngāti Maniapoto, Waikato, Ngāti Apakura) is the Chair of Te Arataura, Waikato Tainui’s Executive, and a Professor in the University of Waikato’s Te Pua Wananga ki te Ao (Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies). He is a leading figure in the movement to revitalise te reo Māori, and is one of the founders of Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori movement.

Dr Rodrigo Hill (Brasil) is an established exhibiting artist both in Aotearoa and abroad, and a lecturer at the University of Waikato School of Arts, Screen and Media. In line with Ki te Kapu o Taku Ringa, his photography practice explores the use of imagery to create meanings and understandings of place, based on feelings and experiences connected to the landscape.

E-Tangata, 2024

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