Elisabeth Easther talks to travel writer and photographer James Heremaia.
I was born in Taumarunui and spent my early childhood — with my three brothers and two sisters — in a town called Ohura. My parents worked for Railways, my father on the old steamers, my mother in the refreshment rooms. Life was spent outside, climbing trees, throwing stones, swimming in rivers, eeling, fighting with the other kids. It was a great childhood, we had nothing but each other.
I was snooping around and I found Mum's Box Brownie. I'd press the button and it made a neat clunking sound. I had no idea what it was or what it did but I just loved pressing that shutter. Then my auntie put some film in it, got it developed and — hey presto — I realised I'd taken my first ever photos. I've never been without a camera since.
In the 60s I took pictures of just about everything. Life as it was from a kid's point of view. I remember taking a photo of six old Maori ladies sitting on a porch at a tangi, with their flax kete, black scarves, smoking pipes. They had really wrinkly faces and chiselled moko. Those photos are lost now and I could just about cry, thinking about it.
My parents divorced, my mother remarried and we moved to New Plymouth. During my teenage years I'd return to Ohura on a railcar that travelled through the night. It was probably only a four-hour trip through the back blocks of Taranaki but I felt like I was going around the world. That's where my love of travel began. My stepfather's generation of Maori men really pushed us kids to have a trade. "Get a job with the government son, and you've got a job for life." The next three years I trained to be a fitter-welder, but my heart was with my camera.
At 20 I went to Australia, the first of my family to travel outside New Zealand. They remain the happiest years of my life. Free, working in orchards in Melbourne, planting palm trees in Townsville, picking tomatoes in Bowen. My friend and I travelled all over Australia in our clapped-out car. It eventually had no reverse or first gear. We drove it like that for a couple of months before leaving it on the side of the road and hitch-hiking.
I went on to England and Europe, coming back through Mexico. In Mexico City I jumped into a taxi full of bullet holes. In Cuernavaca I saw a street fight where a gang member was shot — it was the early 80s, so probably about drugs. To actually see somebody lose their life, their blood all over the street, people yelling and screaming, that really scared me. Along a dangerous mountain pass on the way to Taxco there were white crosses every 10 or so metres on the side of the road. Overseas travel has a way of making you grow up quickly.
Maybe it's because I'm a bit of a loner but, when you're a photographer, you think nothing of driving out to the sticks, climbing a big hill and waiting for sunset to take a great photo. Most people wouldn't do that but that's something I've always craved, looking for the next thing to create a story out of.
As you get older it gets a bit harder to travel. Once I could run up a mountain, now I have to take a cable car. There are limitations but I still see myself doing this in 20 or 30 years, chasing pictures on a mobility scooter. With the popularity of New Zealand to foreign tourists and the development of Maori Tourism going from strength to strength, there's still plenty of travel writing and photography to be done.
I reckon I've been lucky. I've led a pretty charmed life, that's for sure. In my office I have a poster. It says, "I would rather have a passport full of stamps than a house full of stuff."