Behind the lens: Te Ata pūao

By Craig Madsen | March 3, 2022

I am a photographer based in the Ruapehu region of New Zealand, and have currently been on a six year journey to photograph and document the essence and magic of this beautiful region.

For 2021, my project turned to the jewel of the region, Mt Ruapehu itself. (I say “him” because in the local Maori culture, Mount Ruapehu is known and called Koro, which means grandfather). However, to do the Maunga (Mountain) justice, I decided to photograph Mount Ruapehu every morning at dawn or first light for an entire calendar year. I decided that all images would be photographed in the same location, using the same fixed 50mm lens.

Arguably one of the best places to photograph Mount Ruapehu is from an exposed elevated hill on a military base just outside Waiouru. His view is direct, unobstructed, just you and Koro – gorgeous.

However, when I was planning the project, the location was also 25 km from my home on roads that were frequently closed due to snowfall. I really needed to be within walking distance of the top of the hill, and I knew that if I was going to have any chance of making the project work, I would have to sell the house and move to Waiouru.

Luckily, convincing my wonderful, completely understanding and supportive wife (did I mention wonderful?) wasn’t that difficult, as she was already working in Waiouru, so that meant less travel for her. We sold, moved and on January 1, 2021, I started my journey.

Each morning the hike was just under two hours round trip from my house, which I did every morning until winter fully set in. During the winter, when temperatures often drop to -11°C or colder, I cycled or drove to the base of the climb, just to make sure I didn’t get sick and jeopardize the project .

As I write this, I still have six weeks to go, but the trip has been truly amazing, both photographically and personally. By the time it is completed, Te Ata pūao will be a journey, and that journey will be different for many, with different meanings and connections for a wide variety of people. For some, it will be spiritual, for others, cultural. For some, it will be more literal and as simple as pretty pictures of the mountain on a special date, and that’s fine.

But for me, Te Ata pūao is a reflection. It is a reflection of our lives and our mental health. It’s this rollercoaster of life, the ups, the downs, the days we wake up a bit foggy and the days that are downright dark. But despite the variety of images I captured, there is one common ingredient throughout the project, light. And when there is light, there is hope.

Once the project is complete, the plan is that Te Ata pūao will find its way to the exhibition. I imagine it will be somewhat overwhelming, with 365 A2 canvas prints, kindly backed by Epson New Zealand. And I hope viewers come away feeling a little bit what I have.

Fujifilm X-Pro2, XF 35mm F2.0 lens. 0.6s at f11, ISO 200.

About the Author: Craig has been a photographer for over 30 years, working both in New Zealand and overseas, now focusing on long-term documentary projects. See more @craigandrewmadsen.

Stewart C. Hartline