For decades, John Miller has been documenting the most important instances of Aotearoa’s population taking to the streets to effect change. The photographer takes us back to one of his earlier protest subjects to tell the stories behind the images
WORDS | QIANE MATATA-SIPU
John Miller is a name synonymous with New Zealand social documentary. He has captured this country’s most momentous protests, from land marches and war demonstrations to anti-apartheid events and Ma¯ori rights movements. His archives hold more than four decades of Aotearoa history, its people and its landscape.
Our interview takes place over a slightly crackling landline phone, the minor reverb mimicking a broadcast interview of the ’60s. We’ve met a few times, and I picture him today sitting at his table, wearing his infamous military-style fitted cap. He already has me engrossed in one of his stories.
Of Ngaitewake-ki-uta, Uri Taniwha, Nga¯ti Rehia, and Nga¯puhi descent, the 68-year-old paints his black-and-white images with colourful details, vividly recalling names, dates, events, words spoken, and flags flown.
“So, are you going to ask me about the exhibition?” he queries, as we get lost in conversation about his first-ever photographs, taken on his father’s “little Kodak camera”, at age 11. One was of a visit to Auckland Zoo, the other a crossing over the Auckland Harbour Bridge. He goes on about his Russian twin-lens Lubitel — “the basic version of a Rolleiflex” — and the Kodak Instamatic with pop-up flash that was bought for £25, the equivalent of his mother’s weekly teacher’s wage.
The cameras are important, because Miller used them in 1965 to photograph the opening of Parewahawaha Meeting House in Bulls and his school’s sports day. By the time he got to university, running around the streets with various cameras was a daily activity.
“Some of those photos have ended up in this show,” he explains.
We’re back on topic.
Miller’s latest exhibition, Protest, opened in September at the Pah Homestead, TSB Wallace Arts Centre, and was part of the Artweek Auckland programme. The 14 images are a collection that spans five years of Vietnam War protests, taken during John’s time as a secondary and university student and as the photographer for The University of Auckland’s student weekly magazine, Craccum.
“The first time this collection showed, there were 100 images,” he points out. “This is just a little snippet.”
The photographs document an era that saw close to 15,000 people take to the streets in marches and organized activity.
“There was a huge range of people from all different backgrounds. Students, the middle-aged, ladies with fur coats and handbags, workers with placards.
“Ideologically, I was very against the Vietnam War,” he adds. “We had been getting all the information from abroad via American underground newspapers.”
As a first-hand witness to some of the turning points in our history, John says that not too much has changed in the protest landscape over the past 40 years. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, he was photographing the anti-nuclear movement. The early 2000s saw the anti–Iraq and Afghanistan war protests. There were also protests against genetic engineering and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
John has recorded his share of confrontations at Waitangi, too, but says the political landscape there has become less charged.
“Last year, I got served a plate of breakfast from [Green Party co-leader] Marama Davidson and [Labour MP] Kiritapu Allan,” he laughs. “I’m old enough to remember what Waitangi used to be like, when it was congratulatory backslapping, the [Royal New Zealand] Navy marching around saluting and firing guns, and speeches from politicians about how ‘marvellous’ the state of relations was. Then the radicals turned up in 1971 and shook things up.”
Each year, the day has been used to help bring attention to key issues, such as offshore drilling and the movement against methamphetamine.
“The police loved that one,” John laughs. “They were even helping hold the banners.”
John is too humble to accept praise for his expansive contribution to New Zealand’s visual history. Instead, he rattles off names such as Ans Westra, Gil Hanly, and Marti Friedlander, so that we don’t forget to recognize everyone’s collective input. However, with the passing of time, John’s own images have continued to acquire significant value, and, he admits, his collections are good for reminding people that New Zealanders get out on the streets in large numbers to stand for what they believe in.
In the following, John uses his own words to tell the stories behind some of the images in the Protest exhibition.
“A lot of the protests took place at night-time, usually Friday nights. I would have to use a flash gun. The strength of my flash gun meant that a lot of the signs would just white out. I took this photo on 30 April 1971, but it wasn’t until February 2017 that I realized how significant it was.
“The original proof sheet showed only a guy holding a completely white placard. Using a darkroom at the time, I had exposed the photo for the person. Last year, when I whacked it in the scanner and opened it in Photoshop, I managed to pull the levels and see what was written there: ‘Remember Saint Alice Hertz [Herz], Saint Norman Morrison, Saint Roger La Porte [LaPorte], Saint Florence Beaumont’, with various dates.
“All four of those people had burnt themselves to death in protest against the American war in Vietnam. Roger LaPorte set himself on fire in front of the United Nations building in New York City, on 9 November 1965. Alice Herz was an 82-year-old Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany; she burnt herself on a street corner in Detroit.
“The students standing around this man are oblivious. Back then, there were no cell phones nor Google, so they wouldn’t have been able to access that information easily. I suspect this chap was an American working in an advertising agency, because his sign was very professionally lettered. He was probably a veteran of the Second World War and in his early 50s. The thing I like the most about this photo is that it took me 46 years to discover that I actually had it.”
“[This photo is of what] would have been one of the final protest events of that era because, about four months later, the Labour Government was voted in and had a policy to pull out of Vietnam.
“‘Polynesians against War’ is the main banner here. You will recognize the distinctive figure of Tame Iti in the foreground. To the left is Miriama Rauhihi, [musician] Che Fu’s mum. She is marching, having lost her brother Private Peter Rauhihi, in the war three years earlier. He died in Vietnam in June 1969, one of 37 New Zealand casualties. I have another photograph that reads ‘Vietcong never called me a Coconut!’, which is from the same group, I think.
“This image was taken heading down Queen Street just before the Civic [cinema]; I can spot the end of Auckland Town Hall on the right. It is really impressive how the people in this image have stuck to the kaupapa all these years, stuck to their ideals. Tame got his full-face moko in the mid ’90s, so his physical appearance here is much different from the man we see today.”
“I got to know ‘Aunty’ Helen [Kesha] a little while after this photo was taken. She was a kuia from Nga¯ti Wha¯tua. She was vigorously waving this yellow and red striped paper flag, the South Vietnamese national flag. She is basically expressing great criticism — in a loud voice I recall — of the protest. She gave the protesters a real hard time because of her vigorous support for the boys, particularly the Ma¯ori boys, coming back from Vietnam.
“The shot also shows how much Auckland has changed. Those Land Rovers are driving up Greys Ave. In those days, Greys Ave came all the way down into Queen Street. It was long before they set up Aotea Square. A lot of my photographs show city buildings, in Auckland and Wellington, that have since been demolished.”
“[This photo was taken] at the same event as Aunty Helen [attended] — [the civic parade led by the Royal New Zealand Artillery Band, followed by a double column of Land Rovers carrying the gunners of 161 Battery, and troopers from the New Zealand Special Air Service (NZSAS)] — there was a plan for a group of local activists to do some ‘guerrilla theatre’ action. The idea was to show the carnage that the war was inflicting on the ordinary people of Vietnam [by bursting] bags of red paint to look like blood.
“One of my friends, Farrell Cleary, was meant to give the signal for the group, who were dressed as Vietnamese peasants, to rush out and perform the theatre. They were meant to be finished before the parade reached that part of town. But, you see, Farrell is six-foot-five and sticks out quite a bit. The cops were suspicious of him, and so one cop stood right in front of him and followed him around. He couldn’t give the signal.
“The parade was getting closer and so he signalled what he could before the cop took him down to the ground. The activist actors rushed out, but it was too late. It made it look like an attempt to disrupt the parade. Some people have written about this incident, claiming that the protesters were throwing paint at the soldiers and letting off firecrackers; that is bullshit.”