Twelve Questions

Sarah Daniell poses 12 questions to well-known faces

Twelve questions with Marti Friedlander

Marti Friedlander was born in 1928 to Russian Jewish parents. She was raised in an orphanage, with her sister, from the age of 3. Marti emigrated to New Zealand from Britain in 1958 and began taking photographs of people, places and protests. Friedlander is 84 and lives in Auckland with her husband, Gerrard.

A Marti Friedlander self-portrait from 1974. Photo / Marti Friedlander
A Marti Friedlander self-portrait from 1974. Photo / Marti Friedlander

1. What compelled you to pick up a camera and start taking pictures of faces that weren't famous?

I started because I came to a country where there was so little recognition of the arts - of artists, musicians, whatever. I decided I was going to seek out all these people who were so gifted but working alone and take photographs of them because one day people would be interested. I was trying for my own sake to find associations with people I had something in common with.

2. How were you regarded as the stranger with the camera?

Because of love I came to New Zealand and I was completely lost. And then I looked around me and I thought, this place is so strange why not photograph it? See it as a stranger. I had a constant state of wonder. I was fascinated by this country, which was so different to where I'd come from. It was rural. It was provincial. It was actually quite cold. It was different in terms of human relationships. I'd never encountered so much drinking.

I hadn't been used to that. I was seen as a stranger too because I was weird. I was very bohemian and I wore yellow stockings and things like that.

3. Do you think you have a particular affinity with "difference" or those who are disadvantaged because you grew up in an orphanage?

I think "disadvantage" is often a state of mind. I could've spent my life saying, "Poor me". But I didn't because I thought I was incredibly fortunate. You know, I've never thought much of nuclear families. Most of them are so dysfunctional and they always were. My life was very secure, growing up. We knew when we went to sleep. We knew when we got up. We had lots of friends. We were living with hundreds of other children. We learned to relate to people and got an understanding that you have to get on in life. I also had a tremendous regard for anyone who was different.

4. How have you suffered prejudice?

I was in an orphanage because my parents were Jewish in Russia. Any Jewish person will be able to go back to their ancestry and there will be prejudice. But lots of people suffer prejudice. People might not like you because you're blonde or because of the way you look. It would be dishonest to say we all don't have prejudices either. The thing is to learn how to cope with your prejudices.

5. What do you see when you look at a self-portrait of yourself in, say, 1958?

I have lots of portraits and I show them to Gerrard and say "Darling, why didn't you tell me I was so attractive?" It's true. New Zealand men don't do that. I wasn't aware I was attractive then. I look back now with a sense of absolute thrill. And also when I see photos of my sister. It is good to look back.

6. What's the most beautiful thing about an ageing face?

I experienced that when I first read about moko in 1970 - I always loved old people. I longed for faces that showed character. Lines. Everything. It's in the eyes - expressive eyes. I see some old faces and they look absolutely battered and worn down. It's not very good getting old. You wake up in the morning and your spirit says, "Isn't life fantastic," but your body tells you, "But your life is limited." Pains and aches. I think old people have a lot of courage, which is not often recognised. Age levels everything out. You can't be up yourself when you're old.

7. What was the first photo you took in NZ?

The All Blacks 1960 anti-South Africa tour protests at Myers Park and the banner reads, "I'm all white Jack". I said to Gerrard, we must go there. I was such a political person. I was very affected by that protest because it was so gentle. It wasn't aggro. It was people who just felt the tour shouldn't go ahead. That image was bought by the BBC for a film on rugby. It's a tremendous slogan. Often when I photograph protests I'm interested in the slogans and some were really witty. Like "Unemployment is not working." Brilliant.

8. What is you see at that moment you push the shutter?

Usually I push the shutter because I say: "That's it." It's so succinct and so essential. It can be something that I just feel has to be retained. I photograph what I see - it's a thinking image. Something that says something to you immediately, like a conversation. It's so spontaneous. I don't look for images. I actually see them. It's as though you're exclaiming: "My goodness - I've just seen something fantastic in life." If you go searching for images there's a kind of heavy-handedness.

9. Are you impulsive?

Oh yes definitely. I'm not impetuous but I am impulsive. And I'm very emotional of course.

10. What do you look forward to?

To die without too many regrets. We've all said or done things we shouldn't have so you have to forgive yourself when you get older. That's life. You're human and vulnerable.

11. What have you always known?

Don't ever envy others and try not to have big expectations. My life was very difficult but we all have tragedy in our lives. But it's how you cope with it. I've been loved a lot. My sister and I had that because we had each other and we affirmed each other. We had such a close relationship. We laughed a lot. I'm not sentimental.

12. What do you and Gerrard love about each other after 56 years of being together?

We do love each other, so much, still. And don't believe that when you get old you don't still feel that flutter. You do. It shows that your body is still working and the nerve endings are alive. As you get old it's lovely to live with a person whose face you love. I just love Gerrard's face. There's a kind of innocence and a sweetness there. He's a very compassionate man and he's still so utterly curious. And now we're in our 80s can you imagine if we were sitting together when one of you was becoming old and disinterested. What I love about Gerrard is he's restless. Interested.

- NZ Herald

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