Masterton and Me - interview
Anna Rutherford grew up in Masterton and studied at the New Zealand Film and Television School in Christchurch, Design School at Victoria University and at Unitec Institute of Technology in Auckland (Bachelor of Design).
She’s lived and worked in the UK, USA and New Zealand as a photographer, graphic designer, production manager and nanny. On her return in 2016 to Masterton she set up a studio photographing families and children. She also began the Masterton and Me project where she photographed people in the community and asked what made the place special for them. The project includes her family and started with quite a personal motivation.
When did you start the work and when did you realise you wanted to make it a major project?
I started the work around July last year – I really wanted to find out from the people of Masterton about what made it special for them – I also wanted to get people talking about the town and the things that make it great. From the beginning I intended for it to be a major project as it was always about the people that wanted to be involved and I was never going to limit it.
How did you go about finding people to take part?
Mainly though social media and word of mouth.
How easy or difficult was it to get people and businesses to participate?
It was a bit of both. Some people came forward really quickly and showed an interest in being part of the project. But people don’t like having their photo taken! Others thought the project was a great idea but when asked if they would like to take part, a lot said – Yes I’d love to be involved but no, you can’t take my photo…
How did you go about choosing locations for the photographs?
The subjects all chose their own locations. As the project is about the people of Masterton they had to be ones that chose where they images where taken – it was about their special place in the town.
You wanted to hear what made the Masterton community special for the people you photographed and people said nice things. Was it important to you to present a positive story about the town?
It was. When I moved back to Masterton I was feeling quite negative about the move. I decided the only person who was going to make this a positive thing was me and I set out to find out what makes Masterton special in the eyes of the other. So I only asked for people who wanted to share positive stories.
Why were you feeling negative about moving back to Masterton?
I left Masterton when I finished school, swearing I would never return. As an 18 year old in the late ‘90s Masterton wasn’t a terribly interesting place and I was desperate to leave. Returning for visits over the years the town didn’t seem to change much. In 2016, after being back in NZ for 2 years, my husband suggested we move to Masterton. My initial thoughts were ‘no way’ but I then started to see how great a place it is to bring up a family and the only place where we could bring up our family on land their ancestors grew up on. After moving here it was hard to change the negative opinion I’d had for so many years so this was what prompted the discussion of what makes Masterton special and led to the project.
How has doing the project changed your view of Masterton?
I have met so many wonderful people while doing this project. People who have lived here forever, people from far away that have chosen to make Masterton their home. And they all have such wonderful things to say about the town. It’s hard to be negative about a place that is loved by so many and I totally agree with every comment made.
Did you consciously want to make a balanced representation of the community?
I really did. I wanted to show that Masterton is a town of people from all walks of life and from places from around the world. I’m not sure I have fully succeeded in this as when I look at the photos there is a majority of white middle class – which is what I was hoping to avoid. Hopefully the exhibition will encourage other people to get in touch and be involved.
You’ve included people’s statements about living in Masterton alongside the photographs. Did you intend this to be quite a journalistic project?
Yes. I think the words are as important as the images. People have some wonderful things to say about our town and while the photos tell the story about them in their landscape, the photos are mine. The words are theirs and that’s what the project is about.
What do you think the photographer’s role is in making a portrait?
I think the photographer has a responsibility to be true to the subject they are capturing and to represent the subject as naturally and realistically as possible.
Did your commercial work photographing families and children influence your approach?
My commercial work is a lot looser. With children especially I like to let them be themselves and try and capture the little moments. There always has to be some formality with family portraits but I always try to capture the naturalness and togetherness of the families. This is how I approached the portraits for the project. The subjects chose their location and I asked them to simply put themselves in the landscape as they felt comfortable.
Why did you choose black and white as a medium?
I wanted the images to be purely about the subjects in their landscape and I think that had they been colour it would have been a distraction and have taken away from the subject.
You’ve donated all the work to Aratoi. Were you conscious of making a public portrait that would be also be historical document?
Yes. I love history and especially looking back at how things were in a time before me. I can imagine in years to come people looking at the images and commenting on the clothes, faces, places and seeing how much things have changed. I know that with the internet and social media we are very easily able to see how things were many years ago but I think having a printed image is a different thing, especially when there is a collection of them.
I understand you’re planning to repeat this work in other Wairarapa towns. What’s driving you to do this?
This is only an idea at the moment, but I think it would be great extension of the Masterton and Me project to branch out and make it a Wairarapa wide project with perhaps all the images and stories being presented in a book.
Who are the photographers or artists you admire, or who’ve influenced you?
In the early days while I was studying I was drawn to 20th century American photographers like Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, Joel Meyerowitz. Also Marti Friedlander, Ans Westra and my own tutors Gavin Hipkins, Wayne Barrar and Deborah Smith.
What are three words you’d choose to describe photography?
Oh I find this tricky! So many words. Three words that describe photography for me are: Honest, Enduring and Descriptive.
Mary Macpherson is a Wellington photographer and writer. She is Reviews Editor for the PhotoForum website.