Behind The Lens
Kapua Joy Bennett was a prolific photographer of the Māori community from the 1970s to the 90s - always looking to capture "the essence of the person".
Photographer Kapua Joy Bennett shot Māori portraits for
three decades from the 1970s, seeking out and documenting
the extraordinary in her everyday life.
Kapua greets me with a firm handshake and watery eyes. As I enter the small, cosy room, her daughter Ani asks me to shut the door to keep the warmth in. Kapua (67) explains that she’s
getting over the flu. She says it in a way that tells you she doesn’t feel sorry for herself, it’s more
of an irritating inconvenience. But despite feeling poorly, there’s a light in her eyes. And true
to the habit of a lifetime capturing the moment, as soon as we get talking, I have the feeling
I’m under observation.
Because Kapua Joy Bennett (Ngāti Ranginui, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui) has been observing,
recording and catching what she calls ‘the essence of the person’ on film for more than three decades. A prolific photographer focused on the extraordinary in her everyday life, she’s taken thousands of images of the people and places she’s connected with.
Yet 2019 was the first time she ever exhibited her work. Running parallel, she had two major
Matariki photographic exhibitions on at Tauranga Art Gallery and Tauranga City Library in
June 2019. The former a retrospective of beguiling black and white photography from the 1970s
to the 1990s, and the latter showing stunning Māori portraits over three decades.
Connecting through whakapapa
Smouldering eyes. Easy smiles. A loving gaze. Every photo in her extensive collection pulses
with life, whether it’s a picture of kuia in a Tauranga Moana homestead, her seriously seventies-styled design student friends or protesters on the steps of Parliament. Kapua insists her drive to take more and more photos has always been about connection.
“Photography struck me as a wonderful medium to document my people. Being Māori, we believe
in whakapapa and I wanted to record them. Taking a photo can be an invasion of privacy —
who are you?” Her eyes open wider and she demonstrates with hand gestures. “I was trusted because I was one of the whānau and I was fortunate that my people allowed me to record them.”
A love of the arts
Kapua puts her watchfulness down to being an only child. Born in Tauranga to Charlie, a truck
driver and mother Betty, a teacher (and later assistant deputy principal at Otumoetai intermediate
for more than 20 years), she says she was observant at a young age. “My mates weren’t
children. I grew up with adults, many teachers and some soldiers who’d been to war. I was spoilt.
My grandfather’s family are the Bennetts here in Tauranga from Wairoa Marae, my hapu is
Ngāti Kahu, but I spent every school holidays in Te Kaha being raised by my mother’s elder
sisters — all teachers! It isn’t easy growing up with teachers.”
Described as a quiet, obedient, artistic child, Kapua did ballet from age 4, liked to read and
wasn’t athletic. “I came last, I was always trotting along at the back,” she chuckles.
Artistic influences at the time included renowned carver and artist Cliff Whiting — whānau
from Te Kaha — who visited her school. “He’s one of ours.” She was taught by famous writer,
poet and educator Sylvia Ashton-Warner at Bethlehem Primary. Plus, ballet was with well known dancer and teacher Undine Clarke. “It was through Undine that I was given much of my exposure
to the arts as a child. She lived in Te Puna and I used to visit her beautiful home there. She was
very focused on the arts and ballet, and very eccentric.”
After a stint at private boarding school Queen Victoria in Auckland (a Te Kaha tradition for the
women in her family) and her final year at Tauranga Girls, Kapua was accepted into Wellington Polytechnic School of Design in 1969. It was there she fell in love with photography.
“I was so lucky to study design with such excellent teachers,” she enthuses. ”People like Bill Bush
who taught me how to draw properly and [pioneer of design education and award-winning printmaker] Don Ramage. It was there I learned how to take black and white photos, how to
develop and use a dark room, all the techniques.”
She used Nikon and Canon cameras, preferring the Canon for black and white. “With these types of cameras you can manipulate your image, letting in more or less light as you take the photo, or in the dark room. But I have to say that in my dreams I wanted a Hasselblad, after all it went to the moon!”
‘You stole my land, now leave my soul’
It was in the seventies that Kapua first took photos of ordinary people in Wellington’s streets,
as well as self-portraits and photos of Māori activists. “I went to watch the protests [like the Ngā Tamatoa protest in 1972] and photographing the people there was my way of protesting too.
I thought, good on you fellas. I sat with them [people like Tame Iti and John Ohia] and let them
talk, while I listened. I’m a good listener and I always had my camera there.”
Seen as the beginning of the Māori renaissance, Kapua says even her mum joined in the hikoi
with Dame Whina Cooper in 1975, carrying Kapua’s daughter Ani on her back. “We wanted no
more stealing of land. I joined the march in Wellington, then also walked over Auckland Harbour Bridge and I remember the bridge began to shake with so many people on it. Everyone got up and joined in. Documenting what was going on was me protesting, in my little way. I got sacked from
my job in Auckland for going on that march.”
Who is Michael King?
Around the same time, Kapua was introduced to Michael King by her Aunty Roka Paora (Te Kaha),
a renowned Māori scholar, educator, writer and researcher. Working on the book Moko: Māori Tattooing in the 20th Century (1972), King asked her to provide drawings of Moko. Marti Friedlander had been engaged to take the photos.
“Michael King came to see me and I thought ‘Who are you?’” she laughs. “He told me he knew Roka and she’d said maybe I could do this work for him. I said okay, because it was from Roka. He was a lovely, very serious man.”
Kapua worked out a technique of drawing half a moko on tracing paper and folding it over
to produce a perfectly symmetrical design. The experience inspired her to explore moko with photography. “I drew the moko on myself and took the picture with a self timer. I had to think
carefully about how to do it because every iwi have their own moko.”
Calendars & Kuia
Later in life, Kapua published a calendar of fascinating photographs of kuia in Tauranga Moana
to celebrate the hundred year anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand. “I’m lucky I know
all these kuia. They talk to me. Even when I was a kid, old people talked to me. These were elders, senior kuia in their eighties and nineties.
School teacher Connie Farrell introduced me to the three kuia (see photo on the opposite page).
They lived on a property in Welcome Bay, a modern house next to the old homestead.
Rahui Taite (92) wasn’t too happy to be photographed. I let her be and Connie and I went into
the modern house for a cup of tea and had a laugh. Rahui got changed out of her blacks — she wasn’t happy in that! — and into everyday clothes and then she was ready!”
Now perhaps referred to as a kuia herself, Kapua wipes her eyes and shrugs when I ask her
why she’s never shown her work before. “I’m not one to expose myself in that way, I’m very
private. But with all the influence I’ve had in my life, I suppose it’s the right time, eh?”
Her daughter Ani fills in the gaps. “Mum is and always has been an extremely dedicated mother, devoted to the upbringing of her children. Her photos are family taonga for us and for our wider whānau. It’s lovely to now be able to share that with people and with those whose tīpuna are in
the photos, so they can connect with those images and people again.”
Kapua agrees. “If I took photos now, it would be of the coast, of family and whānau because
that’s where it’s all stemmed from.” Ⓟ
All photos in this story were part of Mātiro: A survey of photography by Kapua Joy Bennett — A retrospective of photos from the 1970s–1990s; exhibited at the Tauranga Art Gallery, 22 June – 13 October 2019.