Photographer Peter Quinn has been documenting the lives of New Zealanders for more than twenty years

In 2010 his work was brought together in the book New Zealanders in Focus

Coincidentally, Peter’s career also began with a book, a book called Staunch – Inside New Zealand’s Gangs. Straight out of Wellington Polytechnic’s school of photography in 1989 and with social documentary already an established theme in his work, Peter read a newspaper article about an ex-convict called Bill Payne. Bill had done a series of interviews for Radio New Zealand about gangs and had now been offered a book deal as a follow up. With the nothing-to-lose confidence of the young and hungry, Peter rang Bill up.

“It was a baptism of fire,” Peter says. “A fear and loathing experience.”

His camera was smashed the very first day on the job. It was, Peter says, pretty intimidating but he had a contract and he was determined to come up with results.

He also discovered much about his chosen line of work that they didn’t teach at photography school.

“I learnt a lot of life lessons about how to deal with people. The different aspects of photographing the human animal — what you can get away with and what you can’t. I acquired a grounding through that experience that I wouldn’t otherwise have got.”

Unfortunately, a sneak preview of the inflammatory text of Bill’s book sent Peter literally running for the hills.

“It was supposed to be a career-breaking opportunity but these were guys who said they’d come after us if we f***** up so I asked for my name to be removed from the cover and headed to the South Island’s West Coast to keep as low a profile as possible.”


Shooting the images for the book Staunch – Inside New Zealand’s Gangs was a baptism of fire for Peter Quinn

On the West Coast Peter moved into more straightforward commercial work as the adventure tourism boom took off and was having a great time shooting white-water rafting and the like but he still had a hankering after the social documentary field.

A story he proposed to the relatively new New Zealand Geographic magazine was turned down but happily they had an idea of their own that had finally come to fruition. After a couple of years of ruminating, author of The Bone People Keri Hulme had agreed to write a story about whitebaiting. Peter was given the job of providing the images and spent the next few months travelling the West Coast and its rivers to photograph whitebaiters in action.

New Zealand Geographic

“Once I hit that NZ Geographic path I felt like this was home, this was where I wanted to be. I wasn’t getting a call on a Tuesday giving me a location and a subject to go and shoot that day at a certain time. Now I was doing research and compiling shot lists and then going out into the field to completely independently follow my own nose and get the shots that I felt were the story. It was an incredibly liberating experience because now I was a storyteller.”

This culture was thanks, Peter says, to New Zealand Geographic editor Kennedy Warne visiting National Geographic in the United States and coming back with the epiphany that stories should be shaped by a single writer and a single photographer following them from start to finish.

The cover of New Zealanders in Focus features an otherworldly image of four coalminers in breathing apparatus and hard hats, headlamps blazing and eyes starkly staring from blackened faces. Another commission for New Zealand Geographic, Peter found shooting the story of coalmining on the West Coast particularly rich in the social history that fascinates him. It’s the birthplace of the Labour Party and trade unionism and he came to it at a time when technology was effecting a major change.

“At one mine they were still using dynamite but at another down the road they were using million dollar machinery with diamond cutting heads. Coalmining was changing from fathers handing knowledge down to their sons to a new managerial class stepping in with university degrees and saying it’s all going to be done differently. I think Pike River is a classic example of that.”

Treading his own path

While Peter has managed to carve out a career in his chosen field of photography and now finds his images increasingly in demand from museums and government agencies charged with preserving and displaying our cultural history, he’s the first to admit it hasn’t been easy.

Before internet stock photo libraries and commercial photography collectives with big marketing budgets he was regularly able to pick up commercial commissions to underwrite editorial work with long lead times and no prospect of payment until publication. Now, however, that avenue has all but dried up. A decade ago, he says, things were very grim as the industry went through a major transition but by making the decision to adhere to his own independent voice, he now finds himself called on for just that.

“I think if you’re seen more as an author than a photographer you take a different position in the market.  My work is not generic and that’s an important distinction.”

Choosing subjects

In approaching his social documentary work, Peter says it’s about finding the commonality in people but at same time having an ability to see the distinctions as well. We are all the same but we are all different.

“With still photography you are looking for a moment and at some point you have to make that decision about when to release the shutter and that is where the discernment comes in.

“I’ve always said that it’s not knowing when to take a photo, it’s knowing when not to. With the greatest photographs the photographer has been able to see something long before anyone else. A museum curator has the luxury of looking back but the photographer doesn’t, they are in the moment. They have to take the photo or it’s missed.”

In choosing subjects, Peter says he likes to look where no one else is looking.

“The less noticed intrigues me, particularly in society. New Zealand is painted as this beautiful place where everyone is friendly but is that all there is to us?

“It’s important as a social documentary photographer that you don’t get persuaded into believing the clichés.”

You can find out more about Peter and his work on his website Quinntessential Images.


By Ted Gibbons (Editor in Chief)