Photographer Vienna Nordstrom and stylist Taaniko Nordstrom are using their native-inspired vintage portrait process to reconnect incarcerated people with their culture, genealogy, and heritage
Sisters-in-law Vienna and Taaniko Nordstrom are the creators of Soldiers Rd Portraits, a unique photography experience that allows subjects to reconnect with their cultural roots while having their portrait made. Posing with taonga (treasures) like pounamu (greenstone) pendants, weapons like patu and tewhatewha, and korowai (ornamented cloaks), sitters can even receive a stenciled moko (traditional Māori tattooing designs) for the occasion.
The business has been a big hit, allowing the artists to travel throughout Aotearoa and abroad bringing their photographic connection to as many of those with indigenous lineage as possible. Looking to forge these connections in spaces where they might do the most good, the pair embarked on the Behind the Wire — Rangatahi ki Rangatira initiative. In the Māori Focus Unit of Waikeria prison in the Waikato, Vienna and Taaniko help incarcerated Māori men strengthen bonds of cultural identity and whakapapa (genealogical lineage) through photography.
D-Photo: Can you briefly tell us a little about yourselves?
Taaniko Nordstrom: Kia ora, ko Taaniko Nordstrom āhau. Ko Ngāti Hine, Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairoa, Rōngomaiwahine me Waikato-Tainui ōku iwi. I was raised in Ngāti Koroki-Kahukura, also known as Cambridge, as the youngest child and only girl in a whānau of seven children, and in a pro-indigenous household. I currently reside in Wellington CBD, right near all the action. I am the co-founder and stylist for Soldiers Rd Portraits, and it keeps me pretty busy!
Vienna Nordstrom: Kia ora! Ko Vienna Nordstrom āhau. My people are from Te Whānau a Ruataupare ki Tokomaru Bay, Ngāti Porou, as well as from Samoa on my father’s side. I was born and raised in Auckland, lived for a while in the Waikato before moving to Titahi Bay, where I have lived for the last year and a half. I am married to Taaniko’s brother, and we have five children, the eldest is 12 and the youngest is three. I am the co-founder and photographer for Soldiers Rd Portraits.
How did Soldiers Rd come about as a business?
Growing up in a household with native portraiture everywhere, the idea of portraiture was very normal to me. My mother painted images of Native American and Māori Rangatira, and I grew up knowing their stories and ideals. In my early 20s, I went to New York and saw the original images of the Native American chiefs at the Smithsonian, and I was struck by how much they looked and felt like our tūpuna [ancestors]. That’s where I had the idea to bring back the regalness and dignity of old-school portraiture, showcasing Māori today, in the many different ways we present.
Taaniko called me one night and told me about this photo idea, and asked if I could bring my camera to Kawhia Kai Festival the next day. We didn’t think that many people would be interested in getting dressed up for a photoshoot in front of everyone at a festival, so I baked about 30 boxes of cupcakes to sell between sittings. We showed up the next morning and ended up with a line all the way down the path. We did 40 portraits that first day, and the first time we ever did a ‘Soldiers Rd Portrait’ together was on our first customer. All the cupcakes sat in the sun and melted!
We chucked up a Facebook page with some of the images we had taken, and within four months, we were in Australia doing a massive two-week tour of four cities, and we were booked out. And the rest, as they say, is history. We have been in business for over eight years now, and have evolved and learned so much on this crazy journey.
Can you tell us about the thinking behind the use of moko, korowai and other taonga in portraits?
We are obviously heavily inspired by turn-of-the-century portraiture in Aotearoa, and found that often in images of our tūpuna, they were wearing all of their taonga, all their regalia, and their moko was a main feature of the image, as a way of documenting the ‘natives’ for Queen Victoria at the time, who had a keen interest in the exotic and extraordinary.
Historically, the time period in which these types of images were taken was an oppressive time for indigenous. We were losing our land, our culture, our language, and our sacred practises. So, for us now, recreating images in this style, using taonga, the insinuation of moko or capturing our whānau with real moko, has become a way for us to reclaim cultural pride and understanding, restore mana, and strengthen cultural identity.
We have our kit that we travel with, which contains contemporary korowai, some taonga which have been blessed for the purpose of reuse by our customers, and a set of moko stencils. We do encourage whānau to bring any taonga or korowai they have, so that their image is that much more meaningful and specific to them, as well as utilising this opportunity to document their taonga, and give it a day out from nan’s aunties’ cousin’s closet. Haha.
How did the idea of Behind the Wire — Rangatahi ki Rangatira come about?
We have both been raised to see the world differently, to think about those who are in need, who need an advocate, raised to be very socially minded, and aware of the needs of others, even if they differ immensely from our own.
Over the years as we travelled around holding our studio days, and the hours sitting in airports and cars, Taaniko and I talked about how awesome our experiences were, how fortunate we were to be doing something we loved, we talked about how our business was thriving through the use of our culture, so how we could give back, specifically to Māori? We thought about who would be the least likely people to come get a portrait, and prisoners were the answer.
The idea of working in prisons specifically was a fleeting thought of my mother’s, given her 30 years’ experience working with whānau affected by incarceration as a family group conference coordinator for Oranga Tamariki.
In 2015, I did a nine-week intensive social enterprise programme called Live the Dream, which gave me the time and space to focus on what it really was we were hoping to change and improve, and what spaces we needed to be in, in order to utilise our experience to effect this change. I was able to send out a bunch of emails, and one of them was to Hinewirangi Kohu-Morgan, who has been a programme facilitator in Te Ao Mārama Māori Focus Unit at Waikeria Prison for over 20 years. Through Hinewirangi’s programme we were able to enter the unit at the start of 2016 and pitch our portraiture experience to 50 men, who were all super keen to participate. We did our pilot in June 2016, and have since photographed around 100 men at Waikeria.
What was it like the first time you entered the prison to work?
Ok, well, as we stood outside the gate waiting for the powhiri to begin, which would welcome us into the unit, I whispered to Vienna, ‘We have to be staunch. We don’t want these fullas to think they can muck us around.’ But, as soon as I heard the karanga begin and the call of the pukaea, and we came around the corner into the courtyard, the sight of 50-plus men doing the haka with everything they had, doing the action of pulling us in, we both just burst out crying. I remember thinking, ‘This is exactly where we need to be.’
And there was the idea of being staunch and not showing the guys our emotions out the window! We were absolutely blown away by the wairua in the unit, it felt so unexpectedly like a warm, enveloping korowai, like these men were really making an effort to learn and connect, and make changes to live up to the dreams of their tūpuna.
We did a little presentation telling the men about who we were, what our business was, the places we had travelled, and the reasons why we thought cultural connection was important. We told them that we wanted to come into the unit and share our experience with them, and asked them if it was something they would be interested in participating in. Overwhelmingly, they were all super keen. We wanted to humanise our experience for the men, it felt tika [right, fair] to ask them if it was something they would want to do, rather than have those in authority make it something they were required to do.
Whakawhanaungatanga (making connections in a culturally appropriate way) is at the core of the project. Can you tell me a little about what that means for you?
Whakawhanaungatanga is at the core of our entire body of Soldiers Rd work, and always will be. Our ability to connect to all people sets the tone, invites our tūpuna, and reminds our people that there is an invisible thread that holds us all together. For me, starting with whakawhanaungatanga creates an environment where I am able to be creative, and do things like dress and embellish our customers in a way that would usually be outside their comfort zone.
Because we are creating images that look like our tūpuna, starting our sessions acknowledging those who struggled, and worked, and paved the way for us to be who we are today in this world only seems fitting. It is also a beautiful way to connect with our customers, and find whānau links, similarities, or even have insightful and empowering moments of cultural exchange with non-Māori.
There was also a letter-writing element to Behind the Wire. What did that bring to the work?
The letter writing element absolutely brings out extra dimensions to the work. It adds context to the experience and links the sitter with their whakapapa and ancestors. Because we are taking their portraits in the style of their tūpuna, having them think about those tūpuna prior to their sitting gets them thinking about who they are, where they come from, and what stories they have learned about their people.
It also humanises them, and allows us to see ourselves in them, or put ourselves in their shoes when we read something as intimate and meaningful as a letter to a loved one.
The letter writing is a crucial part of the experience for the men. It encourages them to think about what legacy they have been left by those who have passed on, and what legacy they want to leave for their descendants. For those, like visiting whānau, who are able to view the portraits and letters in the exhibitions we hold inside the unit, the letters provide much needed insight into how the men are thinking and feeling as they go through these programmes connecting them with their whakapapa and strengthening their cultural identities.
Can you tell me a little about the idea of producing before and after portraits of your subjects?
The idea of taking a before photo was initially just going to be for the men, to show them the transformation for themselves, since we weren’t able to take a mirror inside. But once we thought about their letters, and about all the internal changes they were making doing these programmes -— learning tikanga, learning Te Reo, learning mau rakau [kapa haka martial art], learning about their whakapapa — the striking difference between the first photo and the final photo was like a visual representation of those changes they were making. We take the before photo just as they are, as they are sitting, as they are comfortable, with no direction from us.
Now, the before photo represents the person they were, prior to knowing and understanding the intrinsic mana they hold, and what that means. The after photo represents the man we know they have the potential to be, outside the wire.
How much interaction do you have with your subjects in prison?
We hold one-on-one sessions with each of the men, without guards, with just a facilitator sitting in to enjoy the transformation. We read their letters beforehand, so that we can greet them by name when they come in, which personalises their experience. This was something the men who experienced our pilot said made them feel seen and special.
We create a whānau-type atmosphere for the men, and talk with them about their whānau, their tamariki, their hopes and dreams, our hopes and dreams for them, and this helps them to feel comfortable and open up to the experience.
Can you tell us about the photography gear you’ve used to shoot the project?
Because we have to list all the gear we are taking in, we try to keep our kit as basic as we can. When we started, I was shooting on a Canon 7D with an 18-135mm kit lens. At the moment I take in our Canon 6D with a Canon 50mm prime f/1.4 lens and a Canon 24-105mm lens.
We generally shoot with natural light as a rule, to give our portraits an authentic feel. We are slightly limited in the unit with spaces we can set up, so we will either set up right in front of the door to the courtyard in their visiting room, or right by the windows in their classroom. The sessions we do during winter are especially tight for natural light, but because we only shoot individual portraits, we can always make it work.
You’ve been working with people in prison for five years now, what have been some of your biggest lessons in that time?
For me, one of the biggest lessons I have learned over our time in the prison has been coming to understand all the factors that contribute to creating prisoners and perpetuating incarceration among our people. Learning that there is more to a prisoner than a statistic and a stigma, and how connecting with the ‘person behind the patch’ can impact not only them, but it can also have far-reaching effects through their whānau, hapu, and iwi.
The biggest thing I have learned is to never overlook the capacity and power of connection. That all behaviour has a whakapapa. That no matter what you think a criminal is, and how you think you will feel about a criminal, the overarching feeling as I walk out of the unit every time is, ‘How can I help these men go home to their kids, know who they are, and make sure they know that they have value?’
And lastly, that we all have gifts. Some of our people have had a different life and have been affected by challenges and struggles differently, and it’s about what I do with the blessed life I have had, to help and support those who walked a different path.
Working on the project long term, do you get a sense of the kind of change your Behind the Wire work is contributing to?
Yes, absolutely. I guess for me, it is most seen in the comments and gratitude of the whānau, of the partners, and of the men themselves. For the last three years we have both had many opportunities to share our story and our kaupapa through public speaking gigs. This week I will be sharing our korero in Parliament so clearly the conversation is one that Aotearoa is ready to have. Our dream is for every prisoner to be able to get a Soldiers Rd portrait and, one day, for there to be no more prisoners.
What does the future of Behind the Wire look like?
We have a public exhibition in the pipeline, in the hopes that bringing these images to a public arena, along with the impact of their letters, will help to change how prisoners are perceived by society and, ideally, create more opportunities for them once they leave prison, with the goal of reducing Māori recidivism rates.
We definitely hope to expand our portraiture experience to more prisons around Aotearoa, most particularly women’s prisons. We believe that our kaupapa of connection and whakapapa will have a huge impact on those who create whakapapa. At the moment, we believe those that are most ready and open to the impact that our experience can have are those in Māori Focus Units, already on the road to reconnection. Currently there are only five Māori Focus Units in Aotearoa.
We are in the process of setting up a charitable trust to provide a wrap-around service of whānau portraiture, to motivate prisoners to “get out and stay out”.
To see more work by Vienna and Taaniko, be sure to visit soldiersrd.nz