31 August 2011

World Press Photo 2011

On Sunday I attended the World Press Photo 2011 exhibition at the Academy Galleries on Queen's Wharf. For a $5 entry fee happy photography devotees were able to sample some of the best photo reportage from around the world in the past year.

The winning entry was South African photographer Jodie Bieber's portrait of Afghan teenager Bibi Aisha, who was cruelly disfigured when she fled an abusive husband in an arranged marriage - her nose and ears were sliced off.  Despite this, she seems confident having her picture taken. The exhibition notes that Bibi later went to the US for free reconstructive surgery, which is a relief, but it makes you wonder how many other women suffer such cruelty and don't receive the same aid.  (She also appeared on the cover of Time magazine).

The subject matter of World Press Photo exhibitions is typically broad but often bleak in outlook - ours is, after all, a world of great riches juxtaposed with great suffering and inequality. There are often images that shock and challenge exhibition audiences, like the famous pictures of the unfortunate victims of the September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York falling to their deaths from the World Trade Center. Death always features in some form, and viewing it can often be difficult. But that's a small price to pay for those of us who live sheltered, relatively privileged existences, to remind us that most of the world has it much tougher than we do.

My top five images from the exhibition avoid the jarring shocks in favour of gentler fare.  Well, mostly.  I'll err on the side of caution and not include the images themselves, for copyright reasons.

5. Gustavo Cuevas - Matador Gored

And I probably would've excluded this action shot from the traditional Spanish 'sport' of bullfighting anyway, in which the bull's horn pierces matador Julio Aparicio's chin and emerges from his mouth! Grisly, certainly, but the man made a full recovery. The same probably can't be said for the bull.

4. Joost van den Broek - Sailors

My friends and I saw a gang of Russian naval cadets swarming over the steps of a cathedral in Helsinki a couple of years ago, and while they were dressed identically to this fellow, they lacked the pale, translucent symmetry of this clear-eyed youth.

3. Vincent Yu - Kim & Kim

From a North Korean official event, this shot of the decrepit dictator Kim Jong-il staring mournfully at his portly son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, is a great mini-drama.

2. Corentin Fohlen - The Red Shirts' Last Stand

Bearing the hallmarks of a classic revolutionary Soviet poster, this striking image of a Thai anti-government protester drawing his slingshot back to fire benefits from strong diagonals in the sling and the roof line of the building behind. Classic reportage photography.

1. Thomas Peschak - Cape Gannet

Plainly an arresting image, Peschak's picture of a determined Cape Gannet looming to fill the entire frame succeeds because the viewer is instantly transported to the scene (and feels like cowering from the impending photographer / avian collision) but also ponders just how Peschak managed to secure such a clear, focused image of a bird flying at speed directly towards the camera lens.

The World Press Photo 2011 exhibition runs at the Academy Galleries until Tuesday 6 September.  


29 August 2011

The oldest building in New Zealand

The Mission House at Kerikeri
On my most recent visit to the north of the North Island in 2009 my father and I stayed in the Bay of Islands, which enabled us to revisit many of the historic sites in the area. One of my favourites was the Mission House at Kerikeri, pictured above. The last time I'd been to the Bay of Islands was when I was a teenager, and I didn't know much of the history of the region, and while I can remember being impressed with the Georgian solidity of the neighbouring Stone Store (1832-36), I didn't notice at the time that the unassuming white-painted timber dwelling next door was actually even older.

This building, the Mission House, was built in 1821 and 1822 for Rev John Gare Butler by the Church Missionary Society.  The location was endorsed by Rev Samuel Marsden, who is reputed to have held the first Christian ceremony on New Zealand soil some years earlier. In August 1819 Marsden wrote in his diary about the site that he'd chosen for the Mission House:

On the whole the survey we had taken were perfectly satisfied that a more suitable situation cannot be found in any of the adjacent districts of the Bay of Islands. There is a fine fall of water close to the place where we intend the new town to stand for a corn mill, saw mill or any other purpose, without the risk of expense of making a dam, which is a valuable consideration. At Kiddee Kiddee [Kerikeri] any amount of grain, etc., may be grown that the settlement may want for years to come, either for victualling the native children in the schools or Europeans belonging to the missions.  

Butler wrote to his colleague Rev Josiah Pratt a few months later in November 1819, after spending three months in the Bay of Islands, outlining his enthusiasm for the area and its potential for missionary work:

I have made it my business, as far as I have been able, to visit all the inhabitants around the Bay of Islands, and have everywhere been received with the greatest kindness imaginable; and the natives are everywhere begging and praying for Europeans to come and live among them, and their solicitations are beyond anything you can conceive. The prospects are indeed glorious, and I am fully persuaded that New Zealand is ripe for all the instruction and improvement that a Christian world is able to bestow.
But while the initial expectations of the CMS churchmen were high, the Mission House did not remain a centre of religious endeavour. At around the time of the construction of the Stone Store the Mission House became the home of the CMS blacksmith, James Kemp, and his wife Charlotte. The mission ended in 1848 and the Kemps remained as storekeepers and operated a kauri gum trading business, and the house remained in the Kemp family until it was passed to the NZ Historic Places Trust in 1974. 

The Mission House, also known as the Kemp House, has been considerably modified from its original small dimensions, with additional rooms added including a separate kitchen. You can gain a good insight into its rustic simplicity in these panorama views: lots of rough-hewn timber is on display. But its basic amenities cannot obscure the fact that the house is particularly significant for New Zealand architecture as a whole. Architect Jeremy Salmond summed up his view of the house's importance in 2007:

The mission house is remarkable, simply because it still exists. It is no less remarkable because it represents, in its architectural character and form, the epitome of domestic colonial building in this country. While its precedents were British by virtue of the backgrounds and frames of reference of its creators and builders, the mission house immediately became an exemplar for early settler housing in New Zealand. In this sense, it is an extension of a long tradition of design and construction throughout the United Kingdom, with local variation according to materials and trade practice, which contributed to that country's picturesque rural character. This tradition continued in New Zealand, adapted to the material most readily available - timber - and to the climactic demands of this country. That the work was carried out by both missionary carpenters and Maori sawyers is also a commentary on the process of European settlement in New Zealand. The quality of construction is regarded as being significantly better than other buildings erected for members of the mission, and may partly explain why it is still standing. 
- Jeremy Salmond, 'The Mission House, Kerikeri: An Architectural Appreciation', in Judith Binney (ed.), Te Kerikeri 1770-1850: The Meeting Pool, Wellington, 2007. 
Entry to the Mission House is by guided tour only.  

Oldest buildings around the world:

Australia: Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta, 1793
South Africa: Castle of Good Hope, Cape Town, 1666-79
Canada: Maison des Jesuits-de-SilleryMaison Puiseaux, Quebec City, 1637

27 August 2011

A sunny day over Taranaki

Highlights of an Auckland to Wellington Air New Zealand flight last Saturday 20 August, which passed over a sunny and clear-skied winter landscape in Taranaki.  

New Plymouth



19 August 2011

Telecom still doesn’t get it

AbstainThankfully the foolish and ill-thought-out Telecom / Saatchi “Abstain for the Game” rugby world cup advertising campaign has been ditched after just one day of maximum coverage before its intended launch.  Clips of the advert, featuring former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick intoning his lines in a stilted drone whilst driving a dodgem car shaped like a pink fist (subtle…), appeared as the lead item on both TV1 and TV3’s post-news magazine programmes this week, and were heavily discussed in most other media forums.  It became the lead story of the day, such was its valuable blend of corporate incompetence and car-crash television.  Clearly this big splash was part of the orchestrated launch plan for the campaign, and it achieved the desired blanket coverage immediately.  This exposure was a given, knowing the editorial priorities of commercial news producers, who will leap on just about anything with a sexual angle.

But the immediate and overwhelmingly negative media and public reaction was a surprise to Telecom and its ad gurus, who were operating in their own little bubble of hype.  Sure, fellow advertising industry representatives are hardly impartial when judging a competitor’s work, but they had a point when they observed that “Abstain for the Game” was a lousy idea from the beginning.  (Media reporter John Drinnan wonders if it’s a similar campaign to that pitched to Toohey’s beer in Australia but rejected by that more sensible company).  Corporate apologists for the campaign adopted the line that “it’s only a bit of fun”.  This would make more sense if the snippets of advertising broadcast on TV1 and TV3 actually depicted anything amusing or entertaining.  Instead, it looked like a standard example of an ad firm trying to generate hype for a “so bad it’s good” viral campaign, like Air New Zealand’s almost equally ill-judged “Rico” campaign that is so loathed by the airline’s proud staff.  And seriously: a Trojan horse as a sly reference to American, i.e. not sold in New Zealand, condoms?  Had they been re-watching Porkies

There’s only so much nonsense rugby fans will put up with willingly.  The problem surrounding an attempt to manipulate the public and the media into promoting a company’s branded campaign to support a national rugby team is that the All Blacks require no such hype to perform well.  It is telling that no current All Blacks player or management member would be seen within a mile of the campaign – they recognised a dog when they saw it.  This was all about branding Telecom as a nationalistic supporter of the All Blacks, one of the country’s strongest marketing brands (and sometimes a quite good rugby side too).  But there is already more than enough hype around the All Blacks, thanks to the NZRFU’s unstinting keenness for media exposure and its attempts to cement commercial rugby as New Zealand’s profit-generating state religion. 

Telecom is by its very nature a conservative firm, rooted in its history as a state provider and in recent decades the orchestrator of a largely monolithic pseudo-monopoly in key aspects of the telecommunications market.  As such it struggles with its public profile, seeking to appear as cutting edge but hamstrung by its revenue base as a fixed-line provider and its legal obligation to provide Kiwishare free local calling.  Telecom is the big company New Zealanders love to complain about, in part because they used to own it and its performance as a private enterprise has failed to live up to expectations.  Which in part explains the negative reaction to the Abstain advertising teasers.  New Zealanders have no difficulty supporting the All Blacks.  Rugby fans buy the replica gear (although not if it’s ridiculously expensive), shell out surprisingly large sums to watch the games on TV on the Sky pay-TV monopoly, and generally dominate tea-room conversations up and down the country.  Even rugby agnostics will know many a rugby fan, and acknowledge how important the game is to them.  The point of all that is: New Zealanders don’t need a faux-clever ad company and a faceless corporate giant telling them how to support their national side.  They’re quite happy doing that (and, presumably, doing “it”) the way they’ve always done it.  And preferably with the bare minimum of pointless and, more importantly, un-Kiwi hype.        

In dumping the campaign Telecom have made the right decision: things could only get worse if they persisted with the advertising.  But the statement by Telecom’s head of retail Allan Gourdie indicated that the company still hasn’t made the right connections.  Gourdie said ‘We caused offence to some people and for that we apologise’.  That completely misses the point.  No-one in their right mind could seriously be offended by such a feeble attempt at humour.  It wasn’t crude or objectionable due to its sexual content, although I did see the point when some parents quibbled that they didn’t like having to explain to their children what abstinence was.  (There are far worse things on pre-watershed TV than the word abstinence, I would’ve thought – Mark Sainsbury’s moustache and Duncan Garner’s personality, for example).  The reason people complained so uniformly about the campaign was because it was just a really moronic idea, which by implication sheds light on Telecom and Saatchi’s low opinion of New Zealanders and their sense of humour.  Sure, it’s hard to make innovative ads for rugby audiences, because it’s supposedly a notoriously conservative bunch, and this probably explains some of the more Neanderthal offerings in the past.  But making good advertisements is an ad firm’s job, and approving good advertisements is a successful business board’s job, both of which probably attract very healthy salaries.         

In one small way I feel relieved.  Cancelling the ads before they run is the best possible outcome for Sean Fitzpatrick.  He seems like a nice guy, but in this campaign he appeared completely out of his depth in a would-be comedic role.  So now the campaign’s been cancelled after just one day of hype he gets the best of both worlds: the bare minimum of lingering shame for the association with the advert, which will die down quickly as it’s eclipsed by the world cup; and, even better, he gets to keep the money!

07 August 2011


Friday's reports that Radio New Zealand might be used as the basis of a low-cost public service broadcasting television once TVNZ7's funding expires in 2012 will have been of particular interest to proponents of public service broadcasting in New Zealand. On one hand, it seems to make perfect sense to build a public service provider from the one vestige of such broadcasting remaining in the country: RNZ consistently broadcasts intelligent niche programmes that would be unlikely to survive on commercial broadcasters. Indeed, when the Government was initially considering the future of TVNZ7, a proposal to merge TVNZ7 with Radio New Zealand National and Concert to build a one-stop public service network was put forward. When this approach was not supported, and when funding for TVNZ7 was axed, things looked particularly dire for the future of non-commercial programming in New Zealand.

This new proposal, while still seemingly at the very early stages of development, holds a certain promise. Ideally the rebirth of a mass audience public service television network should have started in TVNZ's free-to-air channels, but the importance of the dividend return and the chase for ever-larger advertising slot fees has meant that TV1 and TV2 have concentrated solely on delivering audiences to advertisers, rather than the cultural and intellectual wellbeing of New Zealanders. But if TVNZ7 is not to be the ongoing bastion of public service television, then certainly a system fostered by the Radio New Zealand model of high journalistic standards and broadcasting programmes based on their merit, not necessarily on their mass appeal, is one to be investigated.

There are dangers in the practicalities. Radio New Zealand is a small but important national treasure; it knits together disparate communities in a way that commercial channels are unable to. It supports excellent in-depth journalism. Its interviews are of a consistently high quality. And it acts as a country-wide radio 'journal of record' in a nation with a long history of national broadcasting. But RNZ's long-term funding squeeze has for many years placed the organisation in the position of operating on a shoestring budget. It's particularly hard to retain good staff when they're lowly paid in the highly competitive media environment.

In addition, adding television to RNZ's remit may run the risk of spreading the resources of the organisation too thinly: it's not simply a case of making a TV show with radio personnel and simply broadcasting the audio aspect of the programme on the radio. The worst-case scenario of a badly-managed model would see the baby thrown out of the bathwater - a hybrid organisation that does neither television nor radio well. And one wonders what the employees of TVNZ7 make of this proposal - certainly, its $15m annual budget does seem quite steep, but it has many programmes that would fit right into the remit of a RNZ-based station. Will the best of TVNZ7's local programmes end up on RNZ-TV, or will everyone have to start from scratch?

But I am cautiously optimistic that some good may come of this proposal. At least it acknowledges the value of a dedicated public service organisation in an almost wholly commercialised environment in which the New Zealand national identity is seldom reflected.