Things I Learned at Art School: Edith Amituanai

Things I Learned at Art School: Edith Amituanai

Interview by Megan Dunn for The Spinoff, 06 July, 2019

Things I Learned at Art School is a new Spinoff series featuring artists discussing how they do what they do and know what they know. In our first instalment, Megan Dunn talks to photographer Edith Amituanai about Mean Girls and getting an MNZM for services to photography and community.

Edith Amituanai is an Auckland-born first generation Samoan photographer who lives and works in Ranui. In 2007 when she was the inaugural recipient of the Marti Friedlander Photographic Award, Friedlander herself praised Amituanai’s ability to “portray people and places that reveal New Zealanders in all their diversity.”

Edith Amituanai   Leti , 2008

Edith Amituanai Leti, 2008

This year, Amituanai was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to photography and community. She works for Ranui Action Project and the youth trust organisation Ranui 135 and is acclaimed for her photographs of Samoan and other diasporic communities in Aotearoa.

What did you learn at art school?

I always knew I went to art school to say something and that I came from a certain world… a New Zealand-born Samoan West Auckland world. I knew I had interesting ideas and working in reception was not cutting it. I went to art school to find out what I had to say and to hone my voice. Later, I realised that voice was in photography.

But there’s art school and then there’s art school, right? When I did my undergraduate in photography at Unitec we were allowed to get our head down and get on with it. I was allowed to develop my voice confidently. In 2009, when I completed my Masters at Elam School of Fine Arts I learned that art school is a representation of the art world, or at least of parts of it. And art school can be obsessed with trends, in thought, material, medium… I became disinterested in a lot of the popular ideas like the French Theorist Jacques Lacan, and his theory of “the other”. I remember thinking “If I get referred to as ‘the other’ one more time, I’m going to punch someone in the face.”

What was your first camera?

The first cameras I used were the SLRs (Single Lens Reflex) in the high school photography department. You bring the SLR camera up to your face and it has a tiny viewfinder. I later realised I wanted a medium-format camera. With the medium format camera, you can flip open the viewfinder and look down, so you can still have a face-to-face interaction with the person or people in the photograph. The camera has a wider frame too. And it’s squarer. I hold the camera kind of low, I’ve found. I want that everyday ordinary ‘thing’ to loom large in my viewfinder, monumental even.

Read the full interview on The Spinoff