Volunteer photographers abroad, Paul Thompson

New Zealand Abroad – The story of VSA’s work in Africa, Asia and the Pacific
Trevor Richards, Jeremy Rose, Margot Schwass (photographs: Bruce Connew, Nicola Dove, Bryn Evans, David Gurr, Gil Hanly, Louise Hyatt, Glenn Jowitt, Terry O’Connor)
Bridget Williams Books with Te Tuao Tawahi/Volunteer Service Abroad, $59.95,
ISBN 1877242993

The blurb tells us that New Zealand Abroad will appeal to a wide range of readers. These are specified as “armchair travellers”, “photography enthusiasts”, “those with an interest in development issues and this country’s relationships with the wider world”, and, finally, “those who support the work of an iconic New Zealand organisation that has become one of this country’s leading international development agencies”.

It also informs us that the publication is “a major photographic book”, although this is later qualified when its purpose is defined as “a series of snapshots”. I can claim sympathy with all these classes of potential readers, so the first statement about the book’s appeal is largely true. Thus, my comments focus on the second.

This book is a hybrid, and like many hybrids shows a degree of vigour. It is not a coffee-table tome; there is too much text and not enough designer manipulation of the images by cropping, extracting details, double-page bled spreads, and other devices that go to create a product relying mainly on the visual. Design-wise, the surfeit of smaller photographs and the number of almost snap-shotlike portraits tell us its purpose is more informational than impressionistic. The design is certainly attractive and shows an informed eye, but could not be classified as slick. But then it’s not your standard company history either, even though it marks Volunteer Service Abroad’s (VSA) 40th anniversary.

In their previous 25th anniversary publication, VSA concentrated on the work of the volunteers. But for the current effort, the media unit under Trevor Richards wanted a “celebration of the country itself, not the VSA story in the country but rather the country through the eyes of the volunteers”. The volunteers are a diverse bunch, even after going through the VSA winnowing and selection process, as are the countries. Africa, Asia and the Pacific are the regions covered, and the recipients of aid, or rather partners in development, range from larger populous countries, such as South Africa and Viet Nam, to the tiny, such as Bhutan and Tokelau.

Even without an extensive knowledge of the scattered and various places depicted, what comes across is a “warts and all” reality that doesn’t hide the often very deep social and economic problems, but leavens them with an underlying optimism, and stories of small successes. Without hope and a belief in the possibility of a better future, a development organisation such as VSA wouldn’t exist, or would end up merely a cynical redistribution agency motivated by liberal guilt.

Neither the images nor the text proselytise. The photographers have avoided easy shots of misery and squalor. Instead of being viewed as a hovel, a hut is presented as someone’s home, without condemnation or outrage. Rather than preachy words and sentiments, with discussions and descriptions of poverty, appalling facts like income per head of population are presented in a tabular summary. Both images and writing respect the intelligence and perceptions of the reader.

The photographers, Bruce Connew, Nicola Dove, Bryn Evans, David Gurr, Gil Hanley, Louise Hyatt, Glen Jowitt and Terry O’Connor, were also a diverse group. They were all volunteers, accompanied on their travels by VSA staff from New Zealand, and had riding instructions to avoid both “postcards” and “6 o’clock news” images. They were briefed that the on-the-ground reality is more complicated, and the stories more interesting.

Good photographs are complex things with many layers. They can be as much about ideas as about their obstentible subject. They range from the easily-digested illustrative, of which we see hundreds every day, to the purely conceptual that in many cases could not exist without some curatorial exegesis, or relationship to a current intellectual or aesthetic fashion. As well as different photos for different purposes, photographic meaning is changed by both the context in which the images are viewed, such as a newspaper or art gallery, and the ideas and experience the viewer brings to them. Photos that manage to encompass both “surface”, or what you see, and “depth”, or other extended meanings, can be deemed aesthetically and intellectually successful.

In a compilation work such as this, the identity of individual photographers tends to merge, but rather than this being a weakness, it may reflect professionalism in responding to the brief. This book is not about photographic self-expression or photography as fine art or mission. It is a record of the commitment VSA has to “making a difference”, and in this aim the book succeeds. It is countries, situations and people that are individualised and given depth, not the photographers. Thus the whole production, a collaborative project, can be said to reflect the ethos of the organisation.

For me, the photographs need the context of a book and to be given a purpose – they need words. But these images are also on tour, to be shown at art galleries and libraries throughout the country. While not having seen the show, I can’t comment on how the photographs will work in a gallery context, I suspect they won’t be as effective.

The relationship(s) between photography or, indeed, images and words is fascinating, and produces reams of discussion, some of it displaying more erudition than insight. That discussion is ever-present. Writers and critics such as Ian Wedde have curated exhibitions (Now See Hear) on the theme, and photographers such as Julian Ward have also pondered it deeply, as evidenced by the title of his 1996 book of photographs, Just A Word.

The composite term photojournalism aptly captures the style and intention of these images. The pictures work well as illustration, which is their intended purpose. Do they also achieve the depth that the reputations of the photographers might lead us to expect? It’s impossible to give a straightforward yes or no. Some images do have their maker’s distinctive signature, while others are of the competent “paddy field at dawn” genre and standard.

It might be more instructive to step back from the work of individuals and look at the success of the collaboration. In this light, the images accurately reflect the VSA by-line – “Skilled New Zealanders”.


Paul Thompson is a Wellington-based photographer, curator and writer, and currently director at the Museum of Wellington City and Sea.


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Posted in Non-fiction, Photography, Review
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