Gary Sauer-Thompson - featured portfolio

Reconnections – Walking Wellington – A visual Narrative

Gary Sauer-Thompson

Essay by Andy Spain for PhotoForum

Gary Sauer-Thompson left New Zealand in the 1970s to join the Kiwi diaspora that moved to Australia. From 2013 he returned to Wellington on a number of occasions as part of an attempt to reconnect with the country he had left 40 years earlier. As a photographer the tool he used to reconnect was a camera and he turned the resulting images into a Tumblr blog called Reconnections. This consists of a series of images of his wanderings around Wellington with cameras in hand.

With a varied background in economics, philosophy, tram conducting and the arts, Gary’s work is an unconventional approach to photographing cities, avoiding the spectacle (both of the city and of the photographic process) and seeking out the mundane. The project is centred on the process of the photographic act itself and the attempt to reconnect with a previous life in New Zealand and the corresponding thoughts that the process evokes

Gary ends the blog with a reflected picture of himself in a window in the urban environment of Wellington (Self Portrait, Te Aro), there are bollards around him, suggesting roadworks are in progress, one of the bollards lies on the ground, symptomatic of the windy city and maybe of an uncertainty in his photographic endeavour. The reflected buildings are dirty, there is no sunshine, the windows have drops of rain on. Collectively the signifiers add up to an uncompromising bleakness. In the background a man in a heavy raincoat waits to cross the road, a single figure, a motif that Gary uses in a number of the previous images. Gary speaks of telling a story through fragments and the story being an attempt to “release us from being lost in a labyrinth of physical and mental ruins of the past”.

His images follow his meandering around the city and his mind. Cuba Street, an image of the Suite Gallery entrance covered in graffiti, allows Gary to reconnect with his memories of documentary photographers from the 1970s in New Zealand (via Ans Westra's work in the Suite Gallery nearby). Concrete, a tight crop of the concrete structure of the central police station, enables thoughts about brutalist architecture and so it progresses. Each image enabling thoughts and memories.

AS: Where did photography come into your life? 

GST: In Wellington actually, just before I left New Zealand for Australia via a year or so living in Auckland. I was looking for another kind of future other than one of  being an economist or working as a bureaucrat. A friend gave me a loan of their 35mm camera and I was hooked when I looked at the world around me through the viewfinder. 

AS: Why did it stick and what has it meant to you?

GST: I gave up my career as an economist  when I moved  to Australia and I started working on the Melbourne trams as a conductor. This gave me an insight into industrial Melbourne in the 1970s, which was so different to New Zealand. The  economics didn’t really make that much sense of what I was seeing daily,  so I thought that maybe photography could. I enrolled in a private photography course at Photographic Images College (PIC). Despite its limitations, photography does provide a freedom that enables a detailed and close way of seeing, and it also provides people with an accessible way in our visual culture to see what they overlook, miss, take for granted or pass by in their daily lives.  

Why Wellington for your reconnection to New Zealand?

My mother had died in Christchurch and the city that I knew had been destroyed by the earthquake. My experiences of living and working in Wellington were pivotal in my decision to leave New Zealand and to take up photography.  I had lived in Evans Bay and I would often  walk to the CBD via Oriental Bay with a 35mm camera trying to take photos and making a terrible mess of it.  

Your project avoids the spectacle and seeks out the non spaces. Is this a way of constructing a type of authenticity?

Not quite. We lived in the CBD of Adelaide for a decade or so, and I would often walk our 2  standard poodles around the city. On the walks they would usually venture into dark alleyways, non-places, or bits of urban nature  etc. The poodles had their own city as it were. So it became habitual for me to  do this drifting when walking the city. These non-places break up the  conventional or habitual routes of walking to the market, to the shopping centre, to work or to the entertainment precincts. They give you a different perspective on the city, and they help to make the city more of your own personal city, as opposed to the city organised for commerce, business, entertainment, etc.

What are you trying to reconnect with?

The New Zealand that I left; me as a young person in New Zealand; my memories of being in New Zealand which had been buried and forgotten; me as a New Zealander who was also an Australian; and finally New Zealand photographic culture. It was a homecoming as a photographer as it were. 

You talk of the flaneur in your project. It’s hard to walk without purpose in a modern city. What motivated your route and your choice of subjects?

The standard poodles taught me to walk as drifting - they just responded to smells when we were on a route. They kinda went where the smells of the day were so I would follow - drifted off the route.  I stayed at a Airbnb in Te Aro  when I was in Wellington, and each day I would walk to the city taking different routes, and then spend all day walking different parts of the city. Initially the subject matter was to reconnect with my memories of living in Wellington; then it was  to try and comprehend  contemporary Wellington as a city; then to see it as a  place where people belonged. A place that was home to them.  This structure framed how I selected the subject matter to photograph.  

Text is often used to anchor a meaning but you have used it to open up a myriad of interpretations, can you tell me something more about it, is it intrinsic to the project?

Text is intrinsic.  After I’d studied photography formally I found myself struggling to conceptualise a project and to understand the art world. So I returned to University (in Adelaide) and studied philosophy and visual arts. I ended up with a PhD in German philosophy (Kant to Heidegger).

We live in a circle of images and interpretations and this deconstructive approach to a photographic tradition (e.g. conventional architectural photography, or the humanist street photograph where people are front and centre - e.g. that of Ans Westra or Julian Ward) redirects photography back towards its fundamentals or core - dialogue and interpretation. The approach is designed to open things up in the form of an ongoing conversation. We know the present out of the past and know the past out of the present.   

Have you reconnected? 

Yes: to New Zealand as a citizen; to Wellington as my home city in New Zealand; to PhotoForum and New Zealand photography; to a New Zealand friend (Sally Jackman).

Andy Spain is a photographer from Wellington who works on commissioned and personal projects photographing architecture and cities. He also runs photography workshops and publishes a series of podcast interviews with New Zealand photographers.

More of Gary Sauer-Thompson’s work can be seen on his website, and a wider selection of images from the Reconnections series can be seen on his tumblr page.