Jewels that lie in plain sight: By Edith Amituanai

People who love culture seem to like New Zealand, the quality of education, the beautiful natural peaceful and safe surroundings, and the value of resources. These distinctive characteristics attract people from all walks of life and the depiction of these distinct characteristics in documentary photography is obviously why the life and works of Edith Amituanai are interesting, a photographer who, at first glance, brings into the act of photography all the other pictures she has seen, the many books she has read, the music she has heard, and all the people she loves and holds dear. In that sense, extended family and immediate community are primary subjects for Edith Amituanai, as well as the individuals she grew up with in West Auckland. It gets even better to discover that not only is Edith photographing family and friends and being the village photographer, but she is also in the streets documenting the Siren Kings, a subculture on the streets of Auckland, and this casts light on Edith herself as an artist who constantly seeks out new ways for her voice to be heard, in collaboration with her profound love for everything that is community-based, creative and a respite from the everyday struggles of a woman in today’s world.

Everyone is conversant with the consistent question we ask: what makes an image a “good” image? and the answer is that any image made with love is a good one. As you revisit past articles and interviews featuring the work of Edith Amituanai, most of her responses centre on the constant reiteration of ‘observing what is right under your nose’, ‘Jewels that lie in plain sight’, which means love yours by photographing what you see right in front of you. The brilliance of this simple ideology is great advice to the young and upcoming in the field of photography, it is this quality of thought that a lot of good photographers carry around with them, it is this same quality which naturally gives birth to consistency and constant practice, it is also why when you remove the proper nouns from a caption on Edith’s images, the image, even when not specific to the subject matter, still manages to send a message to a broad audience and will stand the test of time.

Art, itself, is humility at one with pride. In art, successful humility is the soul’s swellingness. However, let us take some time to highlight some of Edith Amituanai’s success as an artist. Her first solo exhibition was held at the Anna Miles Gallery in Auckland in 2005 and later that year she was the youngest artist to have her work included in the Contemporary New Zealand Photographers magazine, She has also been a finalist for other several Awards such as The Trust Waikato National Contemporary Art Award, The Martin Hughes Contemporary Pacific Art Award, Auckland, and the KLM Paul Huf Award, Amsterdam. Her work features in the 2004/05 Break/Shift exhibition at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and She was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to photography and community.

Please briefly introduce yourself, What made you decide to become a documentary photographer?

Talofa lava, my name is Edith Amituanai I’m a Samoan artist and like many other Pacific Islanders living in the diaspora in Aotearoa, New Zealand. After my first year at Art School, I realised my other artmaking skills were not quite up to scratch, so I think the camera found me. I’ve always been interested in people so the camera has given me a beautiful privilege to look at the lives of others.

There are a lot of cars with huge speakers and public address systems in your compilation of images, can you explain the history behind this culture in New Zealand, is it specific to Kiwis?

I can tell you about my involvement in Siren Culture. I’ve heard that the origins of this sub-culture started in Tonga, in the Pacific Islands. It was then brought to Auckland, specifically South Auckland which is home to a large Polynesian community. People began adding multiple sirens the kind usually found mounted outside buildings as alarm systems for bikes and cars. Siren crews emerged and battles between crews were held often in industrial areas because of the noise. I’ve been photographing this scene in the Auckland and Wellington cities since 2015 but it has been around since 2011 that I’m aware of. Music produced or remixed particularly for the scene is called siren jams. During siren battles, there is dancing, to celebrate and show off.  The subculture is unique to Polynesians and it is particularly why I’m interested in it. I love that it travelled across the Pacific Ocean and found a home in cities with new islanders. 

Mission statements aren’t far-fetched with most photographers, so we were wondering if that applies to you too, in the sense of: what message do you wish to communicate with documenting rangatahi in Waitākere and why did you choose to do that?

What I am most interested in are jewels that lie in plain sight, right under my nose. The overlooked, unseen, undervalued or misunderstood. These things I think are deserve of attention. I’m the aunty with all the jobs, a quasi-youth worker, the park detective, a teacher aide and a one-man media team. 

To live in New Zealand means to not take life too seriously, is this true, and how does this culture of not taking life too seriously reflect in your photography work?

We tend to downplay everything here. I think it’s a remaining influence of our history as a British settler colony. We also have a way of speaking here that is indirect.  Depending on the tone and context if someone asks “Are you all good?” They are asking if you are okay. Or it could also mean would you like to fight? To me living here is like working hard but making it appear easy, ‘sweet as’. We are a small nation of 5 million surrounded by the great Pacific Ocean at the “bottom” of the world, or as the Italians call it here la fine del mondo. So I think my photography comes from a place of equally wanting the rest of the world to see the jewels we have here and also only speaking to a very specific audience located on this side of the Pacific. 

Are there photographers whose work inspires you? 

So many! I love Helen Levitt’s photographs of New York in the 30s. The portraiture of Judith Joy Ross. Seydou Keita’s studio in Bamako, Mali. The self-portraiture of Samuel Fosso was made in Cameroon. William Eggleston’s American South. Philip Kwame Apagya’s studio in Ghana. Deana Lawson. Tyler Mitchell. Congolese musician and artist Baloji. Paul Graham’s Shimmer of Possibility. The Tate Modern’s exhibition Cruel and Tender. NZ’s David Cook’s Lake of Coal to name a few. 

In the series of images, you shared with us, which is your favourite image, and what is the story behind it? 

I’ve chosen the image of the Quarry, 2020 because it demonstrates perhaps what I’m looking for. The image is of people swimming in a quarry pool filled in by a lake. The surrounding rock walls are covered by graffiti scrawl near the bottom of the frame a group of young men swim in a semicircle. Above others climb the rock face while one person jumps into the water, suspended mid-air. It’s a spot I have visited often but have overlooked. It is not a public swimming spot, so swimming there is not entirely legal. While it is idyllic there is a hint of possible danger. I have described this quarry watering hole as a portal to the upside down, a reference TV show Stranger Things but also to NZ, the down under. Once when I worked in a youth prison, a young person saw the Quarry image on my laptop and asked if this was my family. They spoke of having a similar swimming hole back home, and that the picture made them homesick. The caption I wrote to accompany this image for Instagram was: “When Aliens ask what NZ is like? I will show them this?” 

Can you discuss, in short detail, how you got inspired to do a series of propositions by May Adadol Ingawanij for your current exhibition titled “Storage” and also talk about your experience with the exhibition 

Legacies exhibition shown at Storage in Thailand was an exhibition commissioned by Circuit Artist Moving Image Aotearoa NZ. In 2020 5 artists were invited to work with curator May Adadol Ingawaniji and were asked to create a moving image work that responded to the term ‘legacies’. I had only photographed until a few years ago so this was only my second film. I decided to work with a cinematographer to film a local jewel, Epifania, whom I had known for some years from my job in community, youth work specifically.

When I first met ‘Epi’ as she is known it was during the funeral of her father so I wanted to platform someone living with and against the idea of a legacy.  It’s a privilege to use the camera this way, as she is such an inspiration. The exhibition has been a wonderful opportunity to share the film with so many, Epifania’s family especially, including her teacher she has mentioned who had a positive impact on her life. Since it opened in 2022 the exhibition Legacies has shown in a few places in the world. This month it was shown in Vietnam and the film Epifania will be shown in QAGOMA, Queensland, Australia in March this year.