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Born in Leiden, the Netherlands in 1936, Ans Westra began her self-taught photographic career in 1952, producing her first documentary series in 1956. In 1957 she graduated with a Diploma in Arts & Crafts Teaching from the Industrie School, Rotterdam and in the same year immigrated to New Zealand, where she proceeded to develop a career in photography that has spanned over 50 years.
As a practiced photographer and new immigrant to NZ, Westra quickly became enamoured with the culture of both urban and rural Maori her work reflecting this excitement and intrigue. As she explained, "Maori were wonderful to photograph because they're just spontaneous and natural, just the most colourful and interesting thing in this country at the time."
Westra's early career in NZ was dominated by her freelance social documentary work for the NZ Government. She contributed regularly to Te Ao Hou - a magazine published by the Department of Maori Affairs - and was also commissioned to produce work for the Department of Education. This commission resulted in the publication of her seminal and controversial 1964 work Washday at the Pa, a powerful, non-fiction photographic essay concerning the life of a rural Maori family with nine children. Washday at the Pa sparked a debate that was largely cultural rather than artistic - the book was eventually recalled and thousands of copies shredded over fears that its depiction of Maori would promote a cultural stereotype.
Nonetheless, Washday at the Pa became regarded as a fundamental step forward in New Zealand photography, since the underlying notion that a body of photographic work could produce such emotive reaction was new ground to a New Zealand public unfamiliar with photography as an artistic medium.
Westra's work with Maori subjects has long been celebrated for its honesty and lack of prejudice and her penchant for social documentary defines much of her core body of work. Nonetheless, her affinity for statement and narrative in photography, coupled with her technical expertise, has led her to explore other subjects and stylistic areas of the medium with equal success.
As a result of her long and distinguished career, Westra is now renowned as one of New Zealand's most prominent realist and social documentary photographers and is venerated amongst her peers for her part in building the image of photography as a viable artistic medium in NZ. She has held numerous exhibitions in New Zealand and across the globe and occupies a pivotal place in the New Zealand photography lexicon alongside such luminaries as Laurence Aberhart and Peter Peryer, Robin Morrison and Marti Friedlander. In 1998, Westra was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to Photography and the Arts in New Zealand and in 2007 she was presented with the NZ Arts Foundation Icon Award. The 2004 survey exhibition (and subsequent publication) Handboek stands as one of New Zealand's most extensive retrospectives: over 130 images selected from 48,000 negatives held in the Ans Westra archives at the National Library creating a compelling testament to Westra's talent and influence.