Anna Jacoba (Ans) Westra CNZM was a pioneer of documentary photography, and one of the first women to work in this area in Aotearoa New Zealand. Self-taught, Ans spent long periods of time traveling around the country as a full-time freelance documentary photographer committed to observing and candidly documenting New Zealand life and culture.
Born in 1936 in Leiden, Netherlands, Ans immigrated to New Zealand in 1957 at the age of 21, eventually basing herself in Wellington. Once there, she joined the Wellington Camera Club and Ngāti Pōneke. The Education Department started using un-posed photographs of real people in their communications, which was a break-through at the time when illustrations were the norm.
A major book: Māori, with text by Professor James Ritchie was published by AH & AW Reed in 1967. Notes on the Country I live In with text by James K Baxter and Tim Shadbolt
was published in 1972 by Alister Taylor.
In 1986 she won the Pacific section of the Commonwealth Photograph Award, taking her to London to exhibit with other Documentary photographers. Many more publications, residencies, grants and more recently exhibitions followed. Handbook, Ans Westra Photographs, an exhibition and major book was published in 2004 and toured around New Zealand as well as being shown in Leiden at Volkenkunde museum. And in December 2019 she had an exhibition at the Anastasia Gallery in New York.
Alongside her work with the Rolleiflex 6x6 format – mostly in black and white analog – colour gradually started playing an important part in the work. For its own sake, as a design element, as a mood.
In 1982 the Alexander Turnbull Library established an archive of Westra's work in Wellington. In 2006 a documentary was made about the artist called Ans Westra: Private journeys/public thoughts, and in 2007 she was made an Arts Foundation Icon. In 2015 she received an honorary doctorate from Massey University in recognition of her long-standing contribution to New Zealand’s visual culture.
Ans is survived by her half-sister, three children and six grandchildren.