By Bruce Connew
VUP, NZ$40 | Reviewed by Andy Palmer

BRUCE CONNEW is arguably New Zealand’s leading photojournalist. After seemingly taking most of the nineties off, this decade has seen him emerge anew. 1999 saw the publication of his superb, autobiographical On The Way To An Ambush. Since then we’ve seen his work published in Sport, New Zealand abroad: the story of VSA, My Place, People of the Eye: Stories from the deaf world and the exhibition and book Muttonbirds: part of a story. This year Connew has released I Saw You... and Stopover, both books accompanying exhibitions of the same name.

Focusing on an extended family in the tiny Indian-Fijian sugar cane settlement of Vatiyaka, Stopover looks at the Indian-Fijian community, their place in Fijian society, and the effect of three coups on the community over the past two decades – particularly the resulting migration.

Connew’s reason for photographing these people was very personal. While I can appreciate his motives, flicking through the book I found it hard to connect with the people and the story – in part because there is no obvious narrative flow. I know narrative in photography is no longer the done thing, but documentary photography is all about the story, and thus demands some narrative flow.

But it’s hard to fault his photography – traditional black and white reportage shot during seven visits between June 2000 and November 2003. There are some very beautiful images; some very intimate images. Many left me wanting to know more, wanting to know what was going on in the photo, why Connew thought it was essential to the story.

For me, captions are integral to these images. Many of the photos seem to have no purpose until you read the caption. Connew wrote the captions and often you get far more than is in the picture alone – back stories, related tangents, how one photo relates to another.

I feel it is a failing of this book that the images and captions are so separated (the captions sit at the back as a kind of appendix). However the siting of captions and images is a constant issue with publications of this nature. Here, for better or worse, design wins out. (The only book I have seen that successfully solved this issue was a much more expensive publication that included the captions in a separate, removal book stored in the inside back cover.)

With design by Catherine Griffiths it is, as expected, a beautiful looking book from the cover through to the last page. The cover is simple and attention grabbing. The visual flow of the images is good with the occasional full bleed image and blank page – mixing it up so the reader doesn’t get bored. And the use of a different paper stock for the short story by Brij V Lal helps separate it from the photography.

Lal’s short story reads like an autobiography, even to point where the narrator is an Indian-Fijian academic working in Canberra, but is apparently fiction. It fleshes out the ideas Connew has photographed. Giving us a history lesson of Indian migration to Fiji, the sugar industry, and political changes, as well as an idea of what life in the rural Indian-Fijian communities was like.

Stopover is not for everyone, but if you do pick it up you’ll definitely learn something about one of our neighbours, and have another beautiful Connew publication to shelve.

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The launch of the book coincided with the opening of STOPOVER – A Story of Migration, an exhibition of the work at Pataka (until November 25). The show is visually stunning – from afar. Salon hung along one wall in a seemingly random way, the exhibition contains all the images from the book. And that is one of its downfalls as an exhibition. There is simply too much work to look at, while many of the images are hung too high or too low to allow decent viewing. Without any of Connew’s book captions, or knowledge of the work, obtaining any reading of the series is rather difficult. An edited selection with more text would have made this a more successful show in its own right. As it is, it seems like a big attention-grabbing advertisement for the book.

Andy Palmer is a Wellington-based artist and photographer. His works can be viewed at www.acpalmer.co.nz.