Photographs for Best Made Plans was made as part of a three-week fellowship at WINTEC, School of Media Arts, Hamilton, New Zealand. The work forms part of Survey Hamilton, an ambitious multi-media project and archive that documents the city of Hamilton. Special thanks to David Cook and the School of Media Arts team for their generous support, encouragement and sponsorship.
Shepherd sits in the rotunda, his arms spread across the wooden banister. Lank hair sticks to his forehead. It’s thirty-two degrees and we’ve both given up on the day.
“No one owns the river, bro. The river owns you.”
Despite his dark wrap around sunglasses, I can see piercing eyes staring straight into mine. Awkward, I look at my feet.
“The river, bro. The river!”
He raises his arms, his palms facing the sky.
He flashes a toothless grin and slaps his thighs.
“I’m not trying to trick you, bro. I’m just saying, the mighty Waikato is too powerful to claim as yours or mine. She is home to the spirits of great ancestors, but she runs her own path. She is a living creature, but today she is tired. I’ve never seen her waters so low. So depressed.”
He shifts in his seat and crosses his legs. He wraps his right arm around a post to hold his weight and keep from falling forward. Beside him, the words R I V E R and C A R plus stick figure hangmen are scratched into the paint of the rotunda. He traces the letter R with his finger, then the line of its underscore.
“The river,” he repeats, before tracing the hangman.
He places his palm over the letters C , A and R, as if erasing the word they spell.
As the sun dips behind us, the sky turns a perfect shade of emerald blue. A Taylor Swift song, blaring from a nearby pub, drowns out the hum of traffic that crosses the Bridge Street bridge.
Confused and lonely at the same time. It’s miserable and magical, oh yeah!
As the song moves into the chorus, a Subaru station wagon pulls into the car park. Four men wind down the windows and unwrap Subway sandwiches. A passenger in the back seat throws an empty cigarette packet onto the concrete beside him. A bird swoops in with the hope of finding an easy snack. The driver drops a plastic bag out the other side. Shepherd shakes his head.
“Where are you from, bro?” he asks.
“Another river city, eh bro? Not quite the mighty Waikato, but still. Those earthquakes have shown that looks are deceiving. Christchurch city, that flat bit of asphalt dumped on top of mud and gorse – just like Hamilton. I saw the news. The earth shook, the roads cracked and the underground rivers flooded to the surface. I saw holes big enough to swallow cars, busses, even houses. All on T.V. of course, but the water! It was amazing!”
The sound of the Subaru station wagon’s exhaust suddenly roars across the car park, frightening a flock of birds out of a nearby tree. They fly east before making a sharp turn northwest, towards Te Rapa. The driver reverses out the car park, but not before dumping more rubbish out his window.
“That’s the problem with Hamilton, bro,” Shepherd says.
“We’ve lost our Tūrangawaewae. One day Papatūānuku will remind us our roads and malls, this concrete jungle covered in cars and fast food restaurants, stands only with her blessing. She created this river. She rechannelled water west from Lake Karapiro, towards Ngaruawahia and the Waipa River. She has the power to flood and wash it all away. Believe me, bro. She can and will. For that, we should be scared.”
Shepherd’s tone, like the sky, has suddenly turned dark. His description of a vengeful mother earth fights with the din of clubs, pubs and restaurants all gearing up for a busy Friday night. The sound of people yelling, groups cuing with 18+ Cards and drivers licenses at the ready, more Taylor Swift and Gangnam Style, blow off valves, breaking glass and an ambulance siren. It all serves to agitate him.
“Bro, there was a time when all of this was nothing but swamp. Between the river and the gullies, it’s a wonder the city didn’t sink into the muck the moment it was built.”
He uncrosses his legs, bends down and pulls a moleskin, Rodd & Gunn hat out of his bag. He places it on his head, adjusts his sunglasses and gets to his feet before slinging the bag over his left shoulder. He looks up the river before walking down the steps of the rotunda and onto the footpath. He stops and turns to look at me.
“The Maori name for Hamilton is Kirikiriroa. The pa was one of the original Maori settlements. It’s my ancestral home. Translated, Kirikiriroa means ‘long stretch of gravel’. Who could have ever predicted that stretch of gravel would someday turn into Te Rapa Road? Who could have imagined that the road would be lined with car yards, or that following it would lead you to a shopping complex owned by Tainui? The biggest in Aotearoa, bro, full up with junk made in China! Plastic fantastic!”
He shrugs, shakes his head, then walks north. Before disappearing into the night, he turns back to face me. He shouts.
“All roads lead to the river, bro. Not to The Base. Not to Subway or Mitre 10 Mega. All roads lead to the river, bro.”
Survey Hamilton is an active documentary project, created by a collaborative team of researchers from Wintec. They make photographs, video and sound recordings, exploring aspects of contemporary Hamilton culture.
The project will produce:
- An archive at the Hamilton Public Library
- A website
The intention is to create community engagement and space to reflect on factors that are shaping the city. This project will form a valuable archive of images and sound that has value now, and for future generations. The project runs from 2011 to 2014.