If a protest happened and Gil Hanly wasn't there to photograph it, did that protest happen?

See the women's movement in black and white and hand-lettered banners. Stamp out rape and murder. Keep men off the streets. Nuclear disarmament now. Protect the future. Hanly is invisible behind the camera but her lens sharpens the faces of the thousands who march.

"A lot of the time - I would say almost all of the time - Gil was the only one photographing what that 1970s and 80s movement was doing," says feminist historian Anne Else.

"She went to all the demonstrations and parades. She did take a lot of trouble to document the movement that was going on and, 99 per cent of the time, she was the only person who did. It was like women didn't count."

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An Auckland Museum suffrage anniversary exhibition asks, "Are we there yet?" Hanly's photographs loom large. Dame Whina Cooper at Waitangi. An Aotea Square sit-in after a 6-year-old girl's murder. The women's anti-nuclear march. A reclaim the night demonstration down Karangahape Rd. Delegates at the Maori Women's Conference. A group shot of the women who published the feminist magazine Broadsheet.

"If the name puts you off all that much, don't buy it," wrote Else in the inaugural July 1972 issue. "Because the content probably won't be your cup of tea either."

Forty-five years ago, Broadsheet's September issue included a "feminist diary". News snippets: Support for changes to the Police Offences Act to allow under-16s access to contraceptive advice. An amendment to the Rent Appeals Bill making it an offence for landlords to refuse to let a house on the grounds the tenant had children. A statement from the meat industry that it would welcome "female participation" now that male worker prejudice was declining.

New Zealand women won the vote in 1893 but by 1970, only 11 had ever become MPs. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand devotes nine sections to gender inequality. Until 1972, married women who entered the workforce were taxed at a higher rate than their husbands, because their income was "secondary". No female-made feature films were produced until the 1980s. A New Zealand encyclopedia from 1984 contained 156 photographs of men (including 15 All Blacks), 19 photographs of sheep and just 16 of women.

Are we there yet?

Earlier this year, the Black Ferns - the women's rugby players that have won five out of six of their World Cups - were offered semi-professional contracts for the first time. Also this year: Kieran Read, All Blacks captain, earned a reported $1m.

Else recalls the country's 100th anniversary of women's suffrage in 1993.

"There was this terrible attack - basically on women - for actually getting some money from the Government to celebrate. There was a period there when there was 'girls can do anything' and that stuff, but really, very little had happened."

Women's anti-nuclear march, Aotea Square, 24 May 1983. Photographed/Gil Hanly.
Women's anti-nuclear march, Aotea Square, 24 May 1983. Photographed/Gil Hanly.

According to Else, mainstream newspapers would occasionally send someone to cover a protest, but usually only "so they could sling off about it, or criticise it".

"Gil's archive is invaluable because there would be no record if she hadn't taken all those photographs."

Hanly's house is hidden in a garden. Lush and dripping. West Coast bush come to the city. "I'm freezing," she says quite cheerfully. "There's a heatwave in Europe." She's just back from France, a grandchild's wedding and garden tours. Life is busy. The first time we came to do this interview, she'd forgotten us and gone to Pilates instead.

Through the kitchen with its lime green walls and the huge painting by her late husband, Pat, and out the back door. In a shed-meets-studio there is a floor-to-ceiling wall of books Hanly has contributed to. An armload of lemon verbena dries in the weak winter sun. She sits at a round table that belonged to her grandmother.

Gil Hanly, 85, photographed the women's protest movements of the 1970's and '80s. Photograph/Jason Oxenham
Gil Hanly, 85, photographed the women's protest movements of the 1970's and '80s. Photograph/Jason Oxenham

"My bloody father banged some nails into it trying to restore it, and I don't think he did it much good. It used to be in ... not the drawing room, but the relaxing room, where everyone sat around and had cups of tea. It had a big cloth over it. When we were kids we used to climb under it and listen to all the talk. I didn't take photos, but I listened to everything."

Hanly, now 85, was raised on a sheep farm in Rangitikei. In 1913, her father was studying medicine and had a scholarship to Cambridge University.

"The war broke out, and he joined up and he spent four years ... Flanders, Gallipoli, Africa, whatever. And at the end of the war, he could have gone back and finished his medical degree, but he just thought, 'Oh, I'll go home. I'll go farming.'

"I grew up on a farm, but my family were always worried about what was happening in the community. It carries on a bit. My daughter has written six books on bilingualism. My granddaughter's at bFM, doing amazing interviews and other things.

"I think women have become much more sure of themselves these days, and they're more inclined to take action, to actually make things happen and make change - but they're still interested in community, and getting people talking and together and sorting things through."

Gil (with a hard "G") Taverner went to the University of Canterbury's Ilam School of Fine Arts. (If she'd stayed home, she says, "I might have had to knuckle down and marry a local farmer. No thank you.") She met the painter Pat Hanly. Post-graduation, the pair exhibited with Bill Culbert in a show called Three Canterbury Artists. Gil and Pat went to Europe, got married, had children, made a life back in Auckland. Pat painted and Gil worked in the University Bookshop and became a freelance photographer.

"I decided not to paint. It seemed too competitive. I wasn't bad, I did quite well at art school. Our relationship wouldn't have survived if I'd kept on painting. Photography was fine. He didn't see it as art, but it was useful. I could photograph things for him.

"I never got paid as well as some of the blokes," she says of her freelance career. "I used to work for all sorts of magazines ... and of course the men always got paid more than me."

Claudia Bell, writing in Between the lives: Partners in art, says "many remember Gil at every event with her camera gear: a lone, thin figure on the edge of the crowd, her Nikon in hand, camera bag at her feet".

Dame Whina Cooper speaking at Waitangi, 5 February 1984. Photograph/Gil Hanly
Dame Whina Cooper speaking at Waitangi, 5 February 1984. Photograph/Gil Hanly

Hanly: "We were protesting about events in South Africa, but we needed to look at Māori and Pacific Islanders in our cities with bad houses and low incomes. I wanted to photograph situations to do with justice and political change."

This week, the woman who has more recently found fame as a garden photographer (that lush jungle out the back of house is all her own work), seems determined to downplay her own significance.

"I suppose I just found it interesting. The sorts of people Broadsheet sent me to see ... I was just there," she says simply, "I was a documenter and I was photographing what happened."

Eventually, she concedes: "I suppose I was attracted to things that were important."

But Hanly was no accidental tourist. She was specifically invited to photograph a 1984 protest hikoi from Ngāruawāhia to Waitangi, organised by Eva Rickard and Titewhai Harawira. She was integral to the documentation of the Bastion Point occupation. When Greenpeace protest boat the Rainbow Warrior was bombed by French agents, it was Hanly who was called on to photograph the aftermath - she'd been on board the night it was sunk; was processing images in her darkroom when the terrible news broke.

National Hui, Turangawaewae Marae, Ngāruawāhia, 24 September 1984. Photograph/Gil Hanly
National Hui, Turangawaewae Marae, Ngāruawāhia, 24 September 1984. Photograph/Gil Hanly

At Waitangi, Hanly recalls "shuffling around" until she could get a shot of Dame Whina "without running into all the bouncers and other people who were trying to restrict where you could go ... I think I fiddled around until I got some people in the background.

You're always a bit aware of where the light's coming from, and what you can get, and what's in the road."

In the hundreds of stacked-flat boxes in her garden studio, the wider scope of Hanly's social documentation is evident.

"Family Christmas" sits on top of "trade unions". There are boxes labelled Older People, Racism and Protest; Immigrants, Emergency Housing and Home Births. One is simply titled "Poor Auckland". Sample caption: "Thirteen people were sharing this two-bedroom house. Washing machine broken. Holes in bathroom floor. Walls leak, et al."

In 1987 and 88 Hanly drove around Auckland taking photographs that fill the box marked "homelessness".

"I went to where people were sleeping overnight in parks, in bus shelters. It was pretty bad."

She frowns. "It's probably the same now."

Hanly has always described herself as a documenter, not an artist.

"But I suppose I was attracted to things that I thought would be important. Mainly because I was employed by Broadsheet. I'd got used to looking at what women were doing, and there were always strong women who did things ... I took photos and gave them to whoever I thought would use them and make a difference.

"I'm not a leader. I think I always felt like I could contribute more by the use of the photos, making sure they got to the right people, than I ever could speaking at rallies or anything like that."

It's interesting, she says, that many women don't actually like being photographed. "Including me, really. I don't know. I've often wondered about that. It takes something away from you, I think."

Sandra Coney, a founding member of the Broadsheet collective describes Hanly's contribution to the social movements of the 1970s and 80s as "immense".

"Whenever there was activism Gil was present, usually quietly and on the sidelines, recording it and reflecting us back to ourselves. She caught the aspirations of this widespread movement for social justice, whether it was feminism, anti-racism or peace."

Barbara Brookes, who used two of Hanly's protest images in her book A History of New Zealand Women, says her work "allows us to recall those defiant and creative acts that women employed to bring about political change".

Hanly sharpened the faces of the furious, the defiant and, sometimes, the resigned. Those flat boxes in her studio are equal measures rage and grace. They're the female of the species at work and play and battle. What did Hanly learn most about people when she pressed the shutter button?

"I don't know that I can answer that," she says. "Because everyone is different. But I do think there are some amazing women around. Always was and always will be."