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Capturing conflict: Robin Morrison

Capturing conflict: Robin Morrison

by Andrea Stevens - Sunday, 11 May 2014

Protest photography was one of the themes during our exhibition A Decade of Days – Auckland through Robin Morrison’s eyes. Sharon Hawke and Jos Wheeler, all too familiar with conflict beyond the lens, reflect on Morrison’s images from Bastion Point and the Springbok Tour of 1981.

Bastion Point 1978: “from that struggle came this beautiful place.”

On 25 May 1978, a convoy of military vehicles carrying 800 police and soldiers left Hobsonville air base on its way to end the Māori occupation of Bastion Point/Takaparawhau. Ngāti Whātua protestors and supporters had been peacefully occupying the point for the past 507 days, following the government’s announcement to subdivide and sell the land (which it wrongly claimed was its own).

Morrison, Robin (1978), Ngati Whatua occupation of Bastion Point.

© Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-RM-NEG-N10-1

Sharon Hawke has seen developments first-hand since her hapu’s occupation at Takaparawhau-Bastion Point, and the subsequent return of the land to her hapu in the 1980s. The documentarian and an active member and advocate for Ngati Whātua, says that Robin Morrison “told our story and he told it well,” and how his images not only serve as a photographic record of events, but also demonstrate how Morrison felt about what he saw as events unfolded.

In Morrison’s own words: “I certainly got the feeling of the horror really, that’s the only way I can really put it of seeing those hundreds and hundreds of police descending on that small community. And whatever the rights and wrongs of that protest movement it certainly made me feel very—almost desolate—about New Zealand’s future if a government could send in the paramilitary really, that’s what it was, into that Māori marae.”

Hawke said that, at the time, the term activist became a “dirty word” used by the Muldoon government to “denigrate the mana of a person.” Ngāti Whātua now occupies as mana whenua (to have authority over land) in Tāmaki Makaurau. And Hawke celebrates the fact that “from the 1978 struggle came this beautiful place.”

The 1981 Springbok rugby tour: Telling our stories

The South African rugby team tour to New Zealand in 1981 divided the nation. During August and September more than 150,000 people took part in demonstrations right around the country, protesting against South Africa’s apartheid regime. Rugby supporters fought back believing politics had no place in sport, and the police tried to manage the mob. It was violent and brutal.

Police face protesters during the 1981 Springbok Tour.

© Morrison, Robin (1981). Behind the wire. Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-RM-NEG-N3P1

Robin Morrison was there photographing encounters at Eden Park, torn between wanting to get involved yet also seeking to remain impartial in his recording of events. Ironically, when looking at these images, we find ourselves anticipating evidence of police brutality. However, in some instances we see them protecting the protestors from the tour supporters.

Photographer Jos Wheeler lived in Mt Eden at the time and attended the protests aged just six years old. He recalls: “In the week of the Eden Park game, the army turned up to roll out barbed wire and put up military style fencing around the perimeter of the park and surrounding streets. Then within days, our neighbourhood became a battleground. It affected everyone who witnessed it, whether you were there in person or saw it on TV. It changed the way most New Zealanders looked at themselves. Driving past there now, you can’t begin to imagine it, but in looking at Morrison’s images taken over those days, the intensity and emotion captured tells the story.”

Police face protesters outside Eden Park, Mt Eden.

© Morrison, Robin (1981). Facing off. Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tāmaki Paenga Hira. PH-RM-NEG-N3P3

Wheeler too documents events and individuals who are shaping the contemporary socio-political landscape, with photographs that often challenge the mainstream narrative.

He says: “As a documentary photographer, Robin had a strong passion for photographing and capturing what he saw as the real New Zealand; he wanted to show what this country is really like, not just a superficial look. From his unique perspective he showed us the landscapes, the characters, the small towns, the cities, and the changing face of New Zealand in the seventies, eighties and into the nineties. And in so doing, he created a historical record of our country, a visual platform for future generations to learn from, be inspired by and to add their chapters to the story.”

Further reading

1999 TV documentary: Bastion-Point – The Untold Story

Bastion-Point – The Untold Story features extensive interviews with protest leader Joe Hawke, and footage from seminal documentary Bastion Point Day 507. Watch it on NZ On Screen.

Bastion Point

Read the Wikipedia summary of the history and occupation of Bastion Point.

The 1981 Springbok rugby tour

Read New Zealand History Online for an overview of the historical events.

  • Post by: Andrea Stevens

    Andrea is a freelance features writer, author and editor. Her special interests are culture and heritage, architecture and design. She was co-author for the book Beyond the State: State Houses from Modest to Modern (Penguin, 2014).

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