Wynyard Quarter, Auckland, 7th to 15th October, 2017 

Street Level

Emil McAvoy

Recently I've been reflecting on several displays of Auckland ‘street photography’, yet not in the conventional sense of the term. These displays – part of the re:trace project – did contain photographs taken in public spaces, but more importantly it was the photographs’ placement in the street that gave pause for reflection.

re:trace displayed both historic photographs and new commissioned imagery in public places across Tamaki Makaurau. Its intention was to connect geographically and demographically diverse communities by sharing visual representations of selected suburbs' histories, topographies and the identities of their diverse inhabitants. These suburbs were chosen because of the substantial infrastructural changes they are currently undergoing: in 2016 this was Takapuna, Northcote, Manukau and Onehunga; and in 2017, Henderson, Northcote, Manukau, Onehunga and Wynyard Quarter.

re:trace is a project run by Fresh Concept, a company which specialises in 'creative placemaking'. They are perhaps most widely known for their work in and around Wynyard Quarter, such as the Wondergarden New Year's Eve music festival situated in Silo Park. A public walkway in Wynyard Quarter was the primary location for re:trace in 2017 (it was similarly displayed nearby, outside Britomart on Queen Street the year before).

Fresh Concept often partner with Panuku Development Auckland who also sponsored re:trace. Panuku Development is an Auckland Council organisation responsible for shaping the regeneration of the wider Auckland region. Wynyard Quarter is perhaps the most prominent example of their development: an area formerly dominated by industrial and marine facilities, now a more balanced mix of apartment housing, leisure, commercial and public spaces along the waterfront.

Fresh Concept sourced the historic photographs from an open call alongside direct engagement with local inhabitants and community groups, complemented with material from a number of archives. These images were presented online, and during the Heritage Festival on custom-made lightboxes in public spaces such as local libraries within the suburbs from which they were originally drawn.

The curation of contemporary commissioned imagery (interdisciplinary in 2016, photography in 2017) was made via a call for proposals from artists and community groups with a relationship to the key suburbs. The final works were also presented online, and on a series of 'tri-signs', three sided towers with printed panels provided by a local display company. The temporary installation lasted several weeks in October overlapping Artweek Auckland.

As part of the waterfront installation, a shipping container near the Viaduct presented further displays of selected historical images alongside an LCD screen running a looping slideshow of the new commissioned photographs. This combination of vernacular, community sourced imagery with contemporary commissioned photographs was an outcome of re:trace's brief to bridge the Heritage Festival and Artweek. However, the unusual marriage of these images also spoke to photography's unique ability to traverse time and space.

As a photographer I contributed to both iterations of the project. Hence my thoughts here are informed by my perspective as both an artist and a writer: a strange balance between participant and observer.

In contrast to a gallery exhibition, in most cases, the public did not choose to visit these displays. They were simply walking past at the time. This is an obvious yet important distinction, as a chance encounter was central to the poetics and politics of their operation.


For a time, I watched Aucklanders in the course of their daily lives come upon these public presentations, stop and look around. They discussed the images with one another, read the accompanying texts and took their own phone camera photographs. It was this entirely unintimidated engagement with public art which felt refreshing to observe. For me, this accessibility and direct engagement registered as a success of the project.

Given the waterfront location, tourists would also have contributed to the audience. These tourists would have been exposed to photographs of suburbs like Northcote and Henderson – not exactly top of the Lonely Planet 'must see' list – and hence an opportunity to engage with this region in a more nuanced capacity beyond the well-trodden tourist paths.

I was particularly taken by the photographic portraiture of Vinesh Kumaran documenting his family connections to Fijian-Indian communities living in Manukau, along with their homes. This is also something I find myself more attuned to following a recent move to Sandringham near a number of popular Indian restaurants and shops. However, I don't have access to the living rooms and inner lives of these neighbours. Kumaran's project made me feel more intimately connected to the lives of other communities who also call Auckland home.

Regeneration of any area is, of course, political. With the advent of the Hilton Hotel currently under construction, I do wonder how gentrified Wynyard Quarter will become in future; an area already geared towards the wealthy and studded with super yachts. That said, I have enjoyed many a day and night there – at festivals, markets, free exhibitions and film projections – and long may it continue.

In the case of other suburbs – particularly where house prices and availability are effected by major infrastructural projects – there is potentially much more at stake for both local residents and new immigrants. Panuku Development is, of course, aware of the difficulties involved in balancing diverse economic, cultural and environmental concerns. This is in part demonstrated by their funding of projects such as this, which promote community representation and direct local engagement.

Reflecting on Fresh Concept's experiences, Community Liaison John Sutton asserts that the project:

...highlights the need of getting regeneration right because it’s people’s lives. If you don’t, a lot of history can be lost.1

Further, Fresh Concept Creative Alex Guthrie notes:

We found the most successful way to engage with locals was to work with existing community groups and facilities which already held ties to locals and the history. These were the gateways into the communities, the churches, the libraries, local politicians, local community leaders.

We almost always received a warm reception from these groups as they are very happy to hear that their area, neighbourhood, and community was receiving attention in a project within the creative arts. These people are proud of their neighbourhood and want to help you get results which best represent the diversity that most Auckland suburbs contain.

These interactions were sometimes the best moments of the day, as we could see the eyes of these people light up or connections clicking in their head when you are describing the project. I think they really want more of these projects which can bring further exposure to the individuals and communities, the conditions they live in, and the history of the area.

The audience engagement can feel like a rich process and full of rewarding interactions, some are also really tough. We have talked to people who think that their communities are being misunderstood or missing out through local planning practices, and communities finding it hard to adjust to changing cultural diversity in the area, but also communities excited about being the subject of major urban projects and the opportunities, and the problems that this will potentially fix. These are things that we try to acknowledge where we can, and also celebrate.2

While documenting change, photographers also reframe neighbourhoods in new ways. Re-tracing and re-presenting the histories and shifting topographies of our local landscape, those involved also explored links between identity and place, photography and memory. re:trace was successful in facilitating spaces for reflection, celebration, dialogue and critique in the public sphere – at street level.


1 John Sutton, in conversation with the author, December 19, 2017.

2 Alex Guthrie, email to the author, December 13, 2017.