Sunday, March 31, 2013

John Miller, an icon and a treasure for Aotearoa, Pacific political protest

Pacific Media Watch's Daniel Drageset and Karen MacKenzie interview
photographer John Miller at the AUT seminar. Image: Del Abcede/PMC
JOHN MILLER is an extraordinary icon in New Zealand activist and social justice circles. Not only has he as a photographer captured in striking images many of the most critical social movements in Aotearoa, from the Nga Tamatoa struggles from 1971 and the hikoi to the 1981 anti-apartheid Springbok tour protests that polarised the nation to the 1980-90s Nuclear-Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement, he is also something of a walking encylopaedia who can tell an intriguing story about almost every individual in his pictures. He has a prodigious memory.

Whina Cooper, Eva Rickard and Titiwhai Harawira at Waitangi, February, 1985. Photo: © John Miller:
Café Pacific was fortunate to be at his recent seminar at AUT University about the NFIP through a reflection around his images. Inspiring stuff.

In 2003, Miller (Ngapuhi) won a NZ Media Peace Lifetime Award for his services to photography and he has hosted countless exhibitions devoted to his work. In a PhotoForum profile marking a retrospective exhibition, “Awha ki Uta: A Tribute to the Whirlwind Generation”, he was quoted as saying: 
I can’t help feeling that all [my] photos of Māori protest portray an unbridgeable difference of perception between Māori, and the Pakeha power structure as to the exact status of the tangata whenua in this country’s constitutional arrangements.

A naïve foreigner, viewing for the first time, such images of occupations, marches, banners and flags, might imagine them to be a documentation of the ongoing struggle of a distinct national entity for self-determination. A struggle analogous to that of the Basques, the Palestinians, the Kurds, or, more closer to home, the Tahitians.

It is most ironic that, unlike these other peoples who have been repressed with various degrees of harshness by their political masters (who correctly recognise exactly what these minorities are struggling for), New Zealand Māori (at least since 1916, when an armed police constabulary unit suppressed prophet Rua Kenana and his followers in the Urewera heartland) have had their own struggles framed and defined as comparatively innocuous distractions by our own state powers.

As [then Prime Minister] Helen Clark proclaimed, in a radio news item during the recent foreshore and seabed debate, "Māoridom is not a nation!" – as if Governor Hobson travelled around Aotearoa signing a treaty with a host of mere interest groups!

Any perceived threat to the unitary state is effectively denied. Consequently the batons of riot squads and the firing of tear gas canisters – or worse – do not feature in any of my Māori protest photos – to the probable relief of us all.
However, the extent of disjuncture between the two parties here makes it inevitable that protest activity, in some form or other (and the photographing of it), will continue for the foreseeable future.
As part of John Miller’s AUT presentation, hosted by the Pacific Media Centre, he have an explanation about the origins of the NFIP waiata, which has over some years become populoar with the School of Communication Studies and has been adopted as the “official” waiata on the PMC (with some lyric variations with thanks to Tui O’Sullivan and Kitea Tipuna).

On board the original Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour during a celebration the  night
before French secret agents bombed the ship on 10 July 1985.  Several well-known anti-nuclear
and pro-independence activists are pictured on the deck. The Cafe Pacific
publisher is in the white jacket. Photo: © John Miller 1985
Kia ora everyone.

Thank you, David, for the Pacific Media Centre’s invitation  to make this explanation about its new official waiata,
Ngā Iwi E and to show some other images relating to the Nuclear-Free Pacific theme.

Unlike many waiata in the popular repertoire, the origins of this song can be pinned down to a very precise time and circumstance.

On the morning of Saturday, 29 September 1984, a small group of Māori and Pakeha musicians met in a classroom at the Rotorua Boys High School. As members of New Zealand’s official delegation to the Fourth Pacific Festival of Arts in New Caledonia, they had been tasked with writing a verse in Māori for the Festival’s official song during the pre-festival hui in Rotorua.

As I was to be the delegation’s official photographer in Noumea, that coming December, I was present at this workshop, too.

The organisers had supplied all the delegations with the same tune and the idea was to have the song sung at the festival with each delegation taking its turn to sing its own verse in their own language.

Leading the composition exercise at the blackboard were composer Hirini Melbourne  and guitar teacher Taura Eruera. Others assisting included Robin Mohi, Kui Wano, Merana Pitman and the Topp Twins.

That evening, the lyrics were written up on a large sheet of paper and Hirini Melbourne and Tungia Baker led the whole delegation in practising this new composition.

Sadly, this festival never took place as in the months before it was due to be held, friction between the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front (FLNKS) and the Caldoche /French settlers broke out into open conflict and the local High Commissioner stepped in and ordered the organisers to call off the whole event.

David, himself was on the ground, there, reporting and photographing this confrontation which is described in a chapter of his 1989 book 
Blood on their Banner – Nationalist Struggles in the South Pacific.

As time has passed,
Ngā Iwi E has become a popular and well loved waiata in Aotearoa-NZ . I’m sure the people who gathered in that classroom, all those years ago, would be most interested to know that it has now become the PMC’s official waiata.

Just to postscript this, the cancelled Noumea festival was transferred to Papeete for June and July the following year, but I and a few others from New Zealand’s delegation withdrew from this at the personal request of the local independence leader Oscar Temaru, (the Mayor of Faa’a and now Tahiti’s current President) who came to NZ to specifically ask us not to participate in an event that he believed would be used by the then-President Gaston Flosse to pump up support for his pro-French Tahoeraa Huiraatira party.

In the event, I did actually make it to Tahiti, around Easter of the following year, 1986, when Maori documentary maker, Pita Turei asked me to go and film some pick-ups for his film
Hotu Painu, on the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, French nuclear testing and the Tahitian independence struggle.

 In those days, before compact, high quality digital cameras, anyone lugging around bulky, high-end film equipment tended to arouse the suspicions of inquisitive bureaucrats, especially those intent on protecting their territory from nosy documentary makers.

I managed to smuggle in the 16mm Bolex and film stock by avoiding inspection by French customs officials at Fa’aa airport and was waved through by an amiable local Tahitian staffer, who did not bother to inspect my backpack!

David, who was visiting the island at the same time, helped me out put by transporting a few extra rolls of film that I couldn’t carry, myself.
Photographers John Miller and Gil Hanly chat at the nuclear-free Pacific photographic
seminar at AUT University. Image: Del Abcede/PMC

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