Auckland Festival of Photography: Perspectives from the Edge of the World

© Jennifer Mason ‘Installation at Silo 7’ Auckland Festival of Photography 2013

The festival … is founded on the democracy of the medium,

not the autocracy of the ‘institution’.


The margins can be an excellent vantage from which to view the world. At the centre, the edifice of the establishment must be sturdy to bear the weight of its responsibility, focused always on itself lest it collapse under the burden. It is rarely here that innovation arises. As we see with the industries of the new communications age, while major corporations spend fortunes on research, the real innovations arise in garages and suburban workshops where a few enthusiastic outsiders pursue ideas with little thought of risk. Those that are successful are, for the most part, bought out by the corporations, who draw their fresh ideas not from their own insights but from those arising on the periphery.

If this is true of life, it is all the more so when speaking of art. The academy of the past and the art markets of the present must draw their fresh materials from outside: the academy only cautiously, the art market voraciously. But art is about more than aesthetic rules and luxury goods markets, it is the way that, as communities, we speak to ourselves of ourselves. It is how we imagine together, creating new metaphors and narratives through which to better understand our lives; to feel our way to the future as much through our emotions as through our intellect.

Auckland, on the southern rim of the Pacific, is home to a festival of photography that has benefited from this marginal perspective. It is, first and foremost, a festival of and by the people; stimulating creativity, encouraging participation and celebrating the achievements of human imagination in all its many expressions. New Zealand’s leading festival of photography, it blends local imagery arising from the full social, cultural and ethnic spectrum of the city with artworks by emerging and established artists of national and international standing. Rather than treating artists as if they are a different species from the general public, Auckland Festival of Photography recognises and celebrates the fact that all of us have the capacity to create, each in our own way and to our own capability. 

To find out more about this refreshing approach to festival making, I spoke with Julia Durkin (who founded the festival in 2004 and has directed it ever since) and her long-time colleague (and ‘architect’ of the Commission project) Elaine Smith.

Alasdair Foster

City-centre festival exhibition using daytime light-boxes


Alasdair: Julia, I am intrigued by your job title. Most people who start a festival call themselves ‘Artistic Director’ or ‘Creative Leader’ or something similar. Your title is ‘Public Participation Director’. Why did you choose that title?

Julia: The job title was a deliberate decision. Public participation has always been important to us. Photography is, by its nature, an open-access, democratic medium. But without people coming to see the work of artists and the projects and talks – without public interaction – there is simply no festival. I am here to develop and build audiences for photography.

Elaine, your job title lists the projects you work on, again, rather than a more commanding sort of title such as ‘Associate Curator’.

Elaine: I work on a number of the key festival ‘strands’, including our annual commission and the ‘Talking Culture’ [lecture] series. I coordinate and manage these events and other projects, but it is a shared process between us, the festival trust and the various external ‘stakeholders’. It would be wrong to call someone in my position a ‘curator’ because that is simply not how we operate.

So, how does this open participatory process come together into a coherent festival?

Julia: The festival is like a stage where every player can enter and play their part. We make sure it flows and works together. And the joyous irony is that when we take this fluid, open-access programming – with exhibitions coming together in different ways from various sources – there is an incredible synchronicity. It is an organic process… which just works!

Elaine: The traditional method of cultural delivery though the institutions is very much tied to the official art hierarchies, with the same people who have ‘made it’ getting shown over and over again. A point of difference for our festival is that we actively seek out the margins, and try to avoid the homogeneity of the mainstream.

So, what you are saying is that while we often think of curators as people with a special insight into the cultural present, if you get enough people together they tend to converge on the zeitgeist, because they are all living in the same moment.

Julia: Yes! Absolutely. In effect, the festival has multiple curators. It is founded on the democracy of the medium, not the autocracy of the ‘institution’.

The real kernel of truth is that everybody is equal in their ability to take part: by looking, by creating or as the subject of an image. We want to generate an environment that is owned and created by and with the participants involved; we want their voices to be heard. When we began in 2004, no other festival in this region that was able to say they were truly open-access; every other event had a curator or a commissioner who made the decisions.

How was this new approach received?

Elaine: Over the years, the festival has become a key part of the cultural life of Auckland every June. Inevitably, however, we have had some negative feedback from the ‘establishment’, unhappy to find they were no longer the sole cultural ‘gatekeepers’ for the city.

Julia: Everything you do in a cultural program is a risk; that is the nature of art. You just have to contain that risk. And one way to do that is to ensure that the festival has ‘resonance’ with the public that comes along to participate.

Do you think New Zealand is particularly suited to this approach?

Julia: This is a bi-cultural country with a strong commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi [a treaty signed in 1840 in which the Maori people ceded their lands to the British Crown in exchange for British Citizenship, effectively ensuring they were equal citizens with the colonial settlers]. We have seen a renaissance of Maori arts and culture since the late 1970s. This has engendered a broader understanding of what it means to be delivering culture as a public good. The Festival is founded on the principle of inclusion for minority and ‘special interest’ groups such as women, people of Asian and Pacific heritage, disabled people, the unemployed and the full diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities.

© Vicky Thomas ‘Self-portrait #1’ 2009

Elaine: There’s a brilliant image by Vicky Thomas that we all love here at the festival. It’s a self-portrait of her with her head wrapped in braid woven with Maori designs. She can only see out of one eye; the other is covered by the braid. A culture only half seen, half understood. Vicky has done a lot of work around identity and her Maori culture, which is very important here in New Zealand.

Tell me about Auckland Photo Day.

Julia: Auckland Photo Day has been part of the festival since it began. It is an open-access public competition run over a period of 24 hours. For one day only, photographers are asked to capture an image which reflects their Auckland. Groups, individuals, families, children … anyone with access to a camera is encouraged to submit an image of the people, places and scenes that reflect their experience of the city.

Elaine: Photo Day is conversational; it allows anyone, anywhere in Auckland to share their perspectives of our region. Indeed, our first ever winner was a nine-year-old schoolboy, Wesley Tumai.

© Wesley Tumai ‘Friends’ winner of the 2004 Auckland Photo Day

Why do you think initiatives such as Auckland Photo Day are important?

Julia: It’s about building cultural currency from the ground up, about empowerment, about sharing your photos, about cohesion. It is about joy, about love, but also about fear, about challenge. It generates a democratic visual conversation about the place we live, work and play.

Elaine: The photographs are kept in an archive for future exhibition and to provide a visual resource for the region made by the people themselves.

[Left] © Mitchell Round ‘It’s a New Day’ 2009; [Right] © Lee Copas ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ 2012

Is there an image that you personally found particularly insightful?

Julia: In 2009, Mitchell Round made a photograph of a gent in a suit and bowler hat standing on top of one of the office buildings. I was really impressed that he had gone to a lot of trouble to capture the essence of what he felt about Auckland; to create his image of the city.

Elaine: There was a winning portrait in 2012 by Lee Copas of a laid-back Maori man at the anti-nuclear peace celebrations in Aotea Square. Everyone wondered who he was. So, in 2014, we ran a national newspaper story to find him and, when we did, Lee gave him a copy of his portrait.

Julia: Each photographer approaches Auckland Photo Day in a unique and personal way. I really like Bernadette Fastnedge’s ‘Overflowing’. It’s quirky, but it illustrates the level of freedom we have in Auckland: you really can put a bath out on your deck, fill it with water, get in and look out over the green grass. It’s a very Kiwi attitude to life.

© Bernadette Fastnedge ‘Overflowing’ 2012

The festival not only shows work that is already made, it commissions new work. This is quite unusual. What was the genesis of the Annual Commission?

Elaine: When we began this initiative in 2011, it was the first dedicated photographic commission project in New Zealand. Through it, we want to support and celebrate photography by local artists, while building a collection which will become an asset for the region and help an artist develop his or her career. It is an approach that directly stimulates the creation of photography as art, rather than just presenting what is already available.

The first photographer we commissioned was Roberta Thornley; the commission came just as she was coming to public attention. Roberta’s work is heavily influenced by cinema and her images have an eerie otherworldly presence that lends them an impression of mystery.

Julia: The commission means that we have totally new work to unveil each festival. In a country as small as New Zealand, people tend to be aware of what everyone else is doing. The commission is always brand new.

© Jennifer Mason ‘Body in Space’ 2013 [see also installation at the top of this article]

Elaine: And sometimes it becomes directly integrated into the festival itself. For example, Jennifer Mason (who won the commission in 2013) alters photographs of interiors transforming them into ‘new spaces’ that manipulate the appearance of scale and perspective. She created a site-specific work for the Silos, a regenerated post-industrial precinct on Auckland’s waterfront, which is one of the festival’s main hubs. The installation came to set the standard for work made by subsequent artists using the Silos.

Another commission went to James Lowe who, in 2012, made a series of works that have the sensibility of cinema while exploring ideas influenced by existentialist philosophy.

Meanwhile, in 2014, Tanu Gago made three works under the title ‘Tama’ita’i Pasifika Mao’I’ [a Maori phrase meaning ‘Real Pasifika Women’] which explored the diversity of meaning that phrase might have. One image shows his sisters posed in the backyard, another shows his three ‘fa’afafine’ [third gender] friends and the third is a satirical representation of the stereotype of Pasifika women – dressed in traditional clothing, surrounded by various tropic fruits and vegetables.

Julia: Tanu’s work is probably the most edgy and progressive of all the commissions in its exploration of race, class and gender in Auckland.

What happens to the commissioned work after the festival?

Elaine: Aside from going into the festival archive, we also tour the work. In 2015 the work of the commissioned artist, PJ Paterson, was subsequently shown at Pingyao International Photography Festival (PIP), where PJ won one of only two awards made to a non-Chinese artist.

[Left] © PJ Paterson ‘Micah 1:4’ 2013 “The mountains melt beneath him and the valleys split apart, like wax before the fire, like water rushing down a slope.”

[Right] © PJ Paterson ‘Malachi 4:2’ 2014 “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves.”

This year we have just announced the commission will go to Russ Flatt. We are particularly excited to see what Russ will create because he has such an individual style and his subjects are always thought provoking.

© Russ Flatt ‘Bedroom’ 2013

Geographically, New Zealand is a long way from the cultural centres of Europe and the United States. How has this affected your approach to making festival?

Julia: Clearly, New Zealand is geographically distant from much of the rest of the world, but I think that the benefit of that ‘isolation’ is that our approach to everything is a bit different. New Zealand is a pioneer country, founded on the knowledge that if you want something done, you get down and do it yourself. I think this gives us a certain healthy idiosyncrasy, but it does also mean that for a photographer to ‘make it’ internationally, they often have to leave New Zealand and consequently become ‘dislocated’ from their homeland.

Do you think your festival is now more culturally connected with the Asia-Pacific than with the Anglo-Celtic heritage of its immigrant population?

Julia: Interesting question. Our audience demographic would certainly still reflect our heritage of colonial European history but, interestingly, much of our festival focus is on the Asia-Pacific region. Our festival belongs to a group called the Asia-Pacific PhotoForum (APP) which represents festivals in Asia and around the Pacific Rim, including Oceania… we are more likely to be working with artists and partner festivals in the APP group than we would be with those from New York, Paris or London.

The fact is that some of the most exciting work today is coming out of the Asia-Pacific region. And APP has established a collaborative framework that expands the range of what we can show. So this is also about trying to change the ‘conversation’ in New Zealand, albeit in a small way: to create our own ‘cultural currency’ from the perspective of our geographical location.

Do you find exchanges particularly fruitful?

Julia: Our partnership in with PIP festival in China, for example, has been a major influence on the number of Chinese artists we have shown in recent years. It’s been a very beneficial partnership.

Where do you see photography heading as a creative communicative medium?

Julia: That’s a complex question. Photography is now the most powerful artform in the world. There’s a ‘digital revolution’ going on all across the planet, but it has serious implications for ‘visual overload’. I think the trend will change direction over the next few years. Photographic prints, photobooks, physical objects… all of these things are having a comeback. And it’s not just among the older generation already familiar with these media, but students wanting to rediscover these tactile forms. I think it is these intrinsically human qualities that will drive the future.

Our festival has positioned itself as leader in its field in New Zealand. And because it is driven by a myriad of artists, curators, practitioners and participants we will be sure to reflect these new values as they unfold.

Biographical Notes

Julia Durkin founded the Auckland Festival of Photography in 2004 and has, since its inception, been its Public Participation Director. In the same year, she initiated Auckland Photo Day, a 24-hour ‘people’s competition’, highlighting the democratic ethos of the festival. With a strong background in production management, a passion for photography and an enthusiasm for cultural collaboration, her skills have been much in demand internationally. She has served on judging panels, undertaken portfolio reviews and represented New Zealand at major events spanning Asia, Europe and Central America. In 2020, Julia Durkin was awarded a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to photography.

Elaine Smith joined the festival in 2010, where she leads a number of key projects including the annual photography commission launched in 2011. With a Master of Arts and an extensive knowledge of New Zealand photography, she is well placed to research the commission shortlist each year, and manage the production and presentation of the final exhibition. She works curatorially on a range of festival projects and also on the festival’s international initiatives promoting New Zealand photographers at major events in Australia, China, Guatemala and India.

Established in 2004, Auckland Festival of Photography / Whakaahua Hākari is an annual event held in the city of Auckland, New Zealand.

Coronavirus Update

Given the restrictions arising from the coronavirus pandemic, the organisers have developed a online version of Auckland Festival of Photography 2020, running from 28 May to 14 June. More information on the program here.

During May and June 2020, Auckland Festival of Photography is partnering with Head On Photo Festival, Sydney, to share and extend their two programs.

This article was first published in Chinese, in the May 2016 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.