The greatest NZ stories: Telling others' tales in life behind the lens

By David Fisher, Mark Mitchell

Reporter David Fisher and photographer Mark Mitchell travelled from Cape Reinga to Bluff in a Kea campervan meeting amazing Kiwis. Today, Alan Sayers, 98, tells how he captured historic NZ moments.

Former NZ Herald photographer Alan Sayers, in his younger days and now, loved his job - despite the low pay.
Former NZ Herald photographer Alan Sayers, in his younger days and now, loved his job - despite the low pay.

Inspired by "the most famous tabloid photo of the decade", New Zealand Herald photographer Alan Sayers slipped into a chorister's robes with his camera concealed beneath.

A photographer disguised and carrying a camera through subterfuge - it would be enough to bring the sharpest criticism today on the decline of the press. But this undercover operation was in 1940. Alan was of a different era, with a subterfuge sugared in the sweetest Kiwi way so as to remove its sting.

He'd left Auckland Grammar to begin work at the Herald in 1934. His furtive mission into St Mary's Cathedral took place later, after he'd made the transition from reporter to photographer.

But first, the inspiration, which Alan, now 98, remembers clearly.

It came from America in the form of a photograph splashed full-page across the front of the New York Daily News of murderer Ruth Snyder's execution by electric chair.

The headline was stark and simple. "DEAD", it blared.

"I used to buy all the American books I could get on photography and crime," he says, recalling the photograph by Tom Howard of Snyder's execution. She was the first woman to be sentenced to die in the electric chair and prison authorities banned photographers from the pool of witnesses, such was the sensitivity around the execution.

Alan: "The photographer strapped the camera around his ankle and he sat in the front row. He had done a lot of training in the office [so] that he could get it pointed just right."

Howard had just one plate - this was before film was used - and one chance to capture the image.

"When he pulled his trouser leg up, at the moment they threw the switch, they got photographs of Ruth Snyder dying in the electric chair."

So, when an opportunity cropped up to replicate the stunt, Alan couldn't pass it up.

It was 1940 and Auckland was getting a new bishop. John Simkin was the sixth Anglican bishop of Auckland, to be consecrated in St Mary's Cathedral.

Alan Sayers' secret photo of the 1940 ordainment of the bishop of Auckland.
Alan Sayers' secret photo of the 1940 ordainment of the bishop of Auckland.

Images were essential for the story of the consecration but the light was too poor inside the cathedral to use any of the standard Herald gear. The Graflex cameras, which used glass plates slid into the back, would be unable to pick up an image without bright flash bulbs, which were banned during the consecration.

"I went up and reconnoitred the church the day before. I found the room where the choir left all their cloaks. I found there would be a spare cloak or two".

Alan came up with a plan. "You've got to have a bit of enterprise, don't you?" he says now with a smile. He returned to the Herald and sought out Bob Wilson - one of the "Wilsons" in the Herald's longtime Wilson and Horton family shareholding. Mr Wilson had returned from a pre-war trip to Germany with a 35mm Leica camera. Unlike the Graflex cameras, it was more forgiving of low light. Returning to the cathedral, Alan waited until the choir members were dressed and ready to take their seats before ducking in to the choristers" cloak room. With two photographers waiting outside in a Herald car, Alan hung the Leica around his neck.

"I then put on a cloak and filed in with the men in the choir. I finished up in the second row. There was a shuffling of bums as we sat down because there wasn't quite enough room."

The consecration was underway - the cathedral packed with visitors from across the country. Alan stood among the choristers, not singing but "I made out I was. I moved my mouth".

Then, at the critical moment, he recreated Howard's photographic moment in the execution chamber in a wonderfully Kiwi way - a tabloid exertion to capture a religious ceremony, a new bishop entering the fold.

"There was a laying on of hands. I took the camera out from under my cloak and started firing. It sounded like a .303 going off but it was okay. The chap sitting alongside me didn't take any notice at all, and neither did the other chap."

The choir filed out at the end of the ceremony. Alan bolted over to the Herald car and was whisked back to the office. "The pictures were perfect. I fluked it," he says. The pictures were the proof of the effectiveness of the 35mm photography. The Herald's shift to the format followed.

Alan's life is wrapped in journalism and like many journalists, his greatest stories are those belonging to other people. He's brushed up against aviator Jean Batten, wrote the biography of Sir Fred "The Needle" Allen and made a packet out of a stubborn young mountaineer he came across while driving down Great South Rd.

Alan Sayers took this picture of aviator Jean Batten.
Alan Sayers took this picture of aviator Jean Batten.

"He was trudging along in the rain. I offered him a lift and he said no, he was training to climb mountains."

Alan followed up with a story and a photograph the next day, recording a young man's ambition to climb mountains. When, about a decade later, news came through that a New Zealander had climbed Mt Everest, Alan realised he had one of the few images of Sir Ed Hillary. He made enough money selling the image to set up his own business in children's and racehorse photography, contracting to the Herald to provide the latter. But for all a journalist's stories are about other people, he retains enough of his own stories.

There's the time he saved All Black legend Sean Fitzpatrick and sisters from drowning, just out the front of the Arkles Bay property which has been home to him and wife June for decades. It was the same house where America's Cup sailor Dean Barker can be seen pictured as a teenager.

New Zealand's a small country - if you spend enough time in it, you wind up rubbing up against everybody sooner or later.

Alan has had longer than most to make those contacts. "My life is a miracle, really," he says. "My life is filled with wonderful memories of journalism. I loved my job. We were paid very badly in those days but the thrill of the work kept us going.

"That's one of the things which has given me the strength and spirit to grow old and stay healthy.

"And now I'm bloody near 100."

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Tomorrow, story 8: A life without a father.

- NZ Herald

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