Award-winning photographer and filmmaker Todd Henry has just submitted his masters thesis at the University of Waikato, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it involves photographs.
Todd travelled to Tuvalu to work on his thesis, which is on the topic of visual representations of climate change.
“I felt that Tuvalu was being misrepresented in the news media,” he says. “Photos depicting the impact of climate change on the population felt staged, to make the situation look worse than it really is, that they made people look like victims rather than survivors.”
He admits climate change is a serious issue for the chain of small islands.
“But when I showed sample photos from the media to local people they said they weren’t a good representation of life there. They are adapting; they’ve been living with the effects of climate change for generations and they’re aware that it is problematic, but not many people are desperate to leave because of climate change. I found more people wanted to leave for other reasons, to educate their children for example.”
Part of Todd’s masters study involved getting Tuvaluans to direct their own photo shoots, asking them to show what was important, meaningful and/or problematic to them from a local perspective.
He was tying his work to the theory that negative imagery fails to promote positive habitual change in people who live in developed nations, that if something is depicted as bad or degraded, people tend to ignore it as a lost cause. People are more likely to respond positively to images that show people doing everyday things and responding to issues in a dignified way.
Todd is American, has lived in New Zealand since 2003 and is married to a Tongan who grew up in New Zealand. He was associate producer for the film Deportees of Tonga – Gangsters in Paradise, which focussed on four Tongans, two deported from the USA and two from New Zealand after doing jail-time in their adopted countries, and how they were adapting, or not, to life in Tonga.
He has just been listed among New Zealand and Australia’s best black and white photographers. He won the 2019 World Photography National Award and his photo ‘Bird rehab’ was runner up in last year’s National Geographic photo competition.
And on a completely different tack, Todd and his wife recently opened Auckland’s first kava bar.
“So far it’s going okay,” Todd says. “We’re getting a lot of people coming through. It’s a bit of a gamble, but we figured the only way to find out if it was going to work was to give it a try.
“But I’m still keen to continue my academic study. I’m thinking about a PhD, maybe extend my masters research because the whole field of social and environmental study is what really interests me.”