Photographing Papatūānuku: Interview with Tessa Williams


We were excited to talk to Tessa Williams of Moemoea Collective about her very unique project: The Papatuanuku Series. Tessa is a very talented New Zealand photographer who photographed a personal series celebrating the connection between pregnant women and Papatuanuku - Our earth mother. The series embraces the notion that we should nurture our women and land like they nurture us. You can follow her on social media at Facebook and Instagram.

We hope you enjoy reading about Tessa's project and get a chance to visit her exhibition that is opening on 11 May 2018 at Expressions Art Gallery in Upper Hutt Wellington.


Tessa Williams, photographer and author of The Papatuanuku exhibition

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

Ka hoki kōmuri nei au ki Moumoukai, Ko ngā whare rau o Te Tahinga, Ko Nga Nuhaka, he wāhine karahika! Ko Rākaipaaka! E kōkōia, e ara e! Ko Jacqueline Pani tōku Mama. Ko Robert Russell tōku Papa, a Ko Ngati Kotirangi tōna iwi. Ko Tessa Williams ahau.

My name is Tessa Williams and I am a Family Portrait Photographer. I am 35 years old and share a home in Upper Hutt, New Zealand with my husband Jamie and our crazy tamariki Izakche, Jaquey & Jamie.

Whanau is my first priority in life and so I love to share stories of others that feel the same.

What's your photography background?

I graduated from The Photo School in 2003 and while travelling Europe in 2007 I was lucky enough to get a job and work my way up in a nationwide photography studio in the United Kingdom. I was managing the creative retouching department but in 2010 home was pulling me back. Since returning home I have worked for myself as a Portrait Photographer since 2011 under the business name Moemoeā Collective. Although I've been working for 6 years now in the Portrait Photography business I am a baby when it comes to exhibiting personal work so this series is really momentous for me.

What's the best part about your job? And the worst part?

Connecting with others and listening to their stories is the perk of my Portrait business. As for exhibiting personal work, having the ability to use my skills to start conversations surrounding the issues I find important is pretty amazing it's my way to contribute back to my community and create a better world for my babies to grow old in. The worst part has to be trying to get my mind to slow down to keep to a slower pace with the funding I have to put the work out there.

What inspires you?

Oh man so many things: Firstly people, family, friends, my clients, too many artists and small business owners to name.

He aha te mea nui o te ao. He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata

What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.

And being outdoors surrounded by ngahere (forest) by the moana (sea) in the awa (river).


Tell us about your project - What it is about, when did it start, and how did you come up with the idea?

The series celebrates the connection between wahine hapū (Pregnant women) and Papatūānuku (our earth mother), embracing the notion that we should nurture our women and land like they nurture us.

I have photographed 13 hapū Māori māmā in landscapes where they look almost as one with eachother yet still being independent resembling both as important. I hope to celebrate the closeness of Maori and our land, and more specifically the connection between wahine hapū and our earth mother; as the world was born from Papatuanuku, so humankind is born from women. I want to encourage the viewer to really think about how they treat such beauty, how without these two taonga we would not exist so we MUST take care of them. He mana whenua, he mana wahine.

The planning for the series of 13 began almost 3 years ago and I started photographing them when I myself 29 weeks pregnant. The first photo is actually of me holding my daughter whilst also pregnant with my son who is now nearly 2 years old.

Printing was kindly donated by Queensberry NZ, Creative Communities Upper Hutt helped massively with the framing. Te Tihi o Ruahine Whānau Ora Alliance and Te Whare Rokiroki have also kindly donated towards the launch.

Some of the photos will be gifted on to one of three Maori Womens refuges from the areas where the māmā were photographed. Te Whare Rokiroki, Kokiri Marae & Te Roopu Whakaruruhau to help support them in raising awareness for the extraordinary mahi they quietly do within our communities to ensure women and children in Aotearoa live free from domestic and family violence.

Where did you find the models for your series?

When you are pregnant you start to notice all the other pregnant women around you, it's funny. So I just connected with people I knew, people I met or people I was told about when discussing the series with others. The only real requirements were you had to be pregnant, you had to be Māori and you had to believe it was an important message we were conveying.

What was your most difficult photo shooting session?

The sessions I was shooting while in the last few months of being pregnant with my son were the hardest, but also probably the funniest.

We got a few funny stares when people saw one pregnant mama standing like an angel by a tree then looked down to see me, an even more pregnant mum, sliding down the side of the hill.


In one session, I think I was close to 36 weeks pregnant, one of the mums was lying in the water and I was in full squat on some very slippery rocks in the water photographing her and when I finally got the shot I almost couldn't get up by myself out of the squat. Her poor partner was ready to take one of us to the hospital if we went into labour.


What do you want people to learn from your exhibition?

For those viewers that haven't been exposed to the purakau (legend) of Papatuanuku, each photo holds a section of the legend as the title of the photograph so that I am able to share an important story from Te Ao Maori this is really the only "learning".

But mainly I hope that the series will start the conversations around how we can improve on looking after each other and our environment and those conversations will lead to new beginnings for some.

Do you plan to do more projects like this in the future?

This is just the first installment. Now I have experienced how to run this from start to finish I have the bug to be more involved with social change and photography is my waka to carry that along for me.

Details of the event:

Expressions Arts & Entertainment Centre, 836 Fergusson Drive, Upper Hutt

11th May - 28th June 2018

Free Entry


#maori #art #photography #culture #mother #earth #project #women #people

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