Four years later: Fixed

Charlie is certainly happy to be home
Charlie is certainly happy to be home

February 22 2015 marked the fourth anniversary of “the big one”.

A month later, my parents moved back home. That’s right — the dusty skeleton of a house featured in my earlier Christchurch posts has finally been fixed.

Each time I return I’m disappointed by the (lack of) progress. The road works and rubble, the broken and empty houses, the desolate city centre; all still there.

I’m impatient, but my parents are positive.

It’s true; the cafes are busy and new places are opening every month. Ballantynes remains a destination, a sartorial saving grace. The gardens are always blooming.

That this broken city can host events such as the ICC Cricket World Cup and Te Matatini National Kapa Haka Festival is a testament to its forebears who in 1855 decreed 165 hectares of the central city remain forever green: Hagley Park. I’ve always said: It’s Christchurch’s greatest asset.

And then I read that the Mona Vale Homestead, 1899 heritage building and wedding reception venue of my dreams, is set to reopen in mid 2016.

When I asked mum how the move was going, she said it felt like they’d never been away.

“Unpacking is easy,” she said. “Even the pantry layout hasn’t changed.”

Great — I’ll know where to find the stash of chocolate, then.

Repairs under wraps

My parents belong to the group of Cantabrians you won’t read about in the papers.

Their house was among those damaged — but not beyond repair — in the devastating earthquakes of 2011.

Scopes put repairs well above the EQC $100,000 cap, yet the place was habitable — temporarily.

It’s the same story all along the street: Chimneys were taken down, with the bricks stacked in back gardens. Tarpaulins covered holes in roofs, polystyrene filled gaps in walls, and doors wouldn’t shut properly. People lived in these houses for years without complaining. (At least, not publicly).

While media focussed on liquefaction spewing forth from eastern suburbs, red-faced red-zoners, and the contentious fate of the Anglican Cathedral… the so-called blue chip suburbs kept the bricks in the back garden and further fortified the high stone walls.

It’s been reported there was a conspiracy of silence among Fendaltonions eager to hush up the extent of the damage to protect property values, while others have said it’s simply a “resilient” area.

“Compared to other earthquake-stricken parts of the city, it’s certainly harder to find residents prepared to openly talk about property damage, and that included local MP and Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, who declined to discuss his personal situation or that of Fendalton in general,” Amanda Cropp wrote in 2011.

Last month, my parents moved out and the work began.


Don't ask me how she's still standing
Don’t ask me how she’s still standing
Through the floors
Through the floors


Little Charlie treads carefully
Little Charlie treads carefully







Way back in June 2011, I wrote about my surprise at the lack of progress in the munted CBD:  “The fact Christchurch is still a bombsite really makes it seem like no time at all has passed since February 24.”

At least The Garden City has its gardens.

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Behind the scenes behind the wall

Finally (and many reading this will know how warranted “finally” actually is), finally, I’ve published my story on the Carmelites.

It’s a story that began… well, I first knocked on the monastery door early last year. You can read about the conception of the feature in this post.

I’ve met with the sisters many times, and kept in touch with Sister Cushla over the phone and via email.

The Carmelites are amazing women; having chosen to relinquish the outside world, forever, and dedicate their lives to praying for us. They’re full of laughter and light and love. They radiate happiness. It was a joy to work with them.

And there was always plenty to talk about. Sister Cushla loves reading, and I’m currently part way through one of her recommendations: The Ear of the Heart (it’s very good).

When I passed my camera through the turntable to her, I eyed her suspiciously and said: “I know where you live.” She gave the DSLR a once over and replied, “Oh you don’t need to worry, I’ve taken a vow of poverty.”

She turned out to be a talented photographer:

Upstairs corridor, taken by Sister Cushla
Upstairs corridor, taken by Sister Cushla
The quadrangle, taken by Sister Cushla
The quadrangle, taken by Sister Cushla
The machine that makes the bread used in Holy Communion, taken by Sister Cushla
The machine that makes the bread used in Holy Communion, taken by Sister Cushla

I saw on Twitter someone comparing the story to a project done by the New York Times. They said Stuff’s interactive must have been done “with a small team on a small budget”. I’m not sure if this person realised the truth in their statement — in that the content was completed largely outside work hours by me-myself-and-I, and of course our developer Andy Ball.

It’s a humble project, but hopefully it gets its message across.

I insist, it’s not just a story about religion. It’s a story about happiness.

Along a main road in Christchurch, 15 minutes from the city’s centre, a block of land is enclosed by a high stone wall.

Most passersby wouldn’t know this is the Carmelite Monastery, home to 10 women — nuns — who have committed their lives to contemplative prayer and a deep relationship with God.

Shut off from the world, they pray for us.

For this story, Carmelite Sister Cushla borrowed our reporter’s camera to document scenes of the nuns’ daily life, offering the world a glimpse behind the wall.

Mother Dorothea Mary of Jesus is sorry to hear the Captain Cook Tavern has closed.

The former Otago scarfie studied social work and education, hung out at “the Cook”, and didn’t believe in God.

“In fact, I couldn’t bear Christians!” she says.

Today, she speaks from behind an iron grille, at the Carmel of Christ the King Monastery in Christchurch. She is dressed in the traditional habit of Carmel: brown and white, with a black veil. The black veil represents service until death, the lifelong promise a woman can make, usually six years after entering the Order.

This is a story of happiness. An examination of the human experience of cloistered nuns, and of the power of The Contemplative Life.

Mother Dorothea is the Christchurch Carmel prioress, the elected leader of the sisters. She has been “behind bars” since 1981, residing within the stone walls of the 2.5 hectare block which constitutes the monastery in Halswell.

Her junior, Sister Cushla of Mary Immaculate, entered in 1999, and is one of the younger sisters at the monastery.

With a beatific smile, Sister Cushla says the habits are actually quite practical. “You can hook it up and deliver cattle in these!”

She describes their daily routine; a timetable which includes more than six hours of prayer and spiritual readings, five hours of work, and about two hours of recreation. She admits it can be hard to adjust to the Carmelite lifestyle.

“If you haven’t got up at 5.30am for most of your life… then it’s not easy.”

To read the rest of this story and view Sister Cushla’s images, click here.


Chch – a backwards glance

I meant to post these photos last year, after I took them in October.

A weekend trip to Christchurch made me realise they’ll soon be irrelevant.

Diggers are nibbling, everywhere. The Christchurch rebuild is like fingernail growth.

I cling to the city’s constants: the people, the gardens, Ballantynes.

Update me. Are my pictures history?




















What makes good photojournalism?

“A camera is a mechanical device which records a moment in time, but not what that moment means or the emotions that it evokes. Whereas, a painting, however imperfect it may be, is an expression of… feeling. An expression of love. Not just a copy of something.” (Charles Ryder in Brideshed Revisited).

As a painter, I shared Charles’s skepticism towards photography.

A camera can depict a face mid-expression – distorting emotion and capturing an image that never existed in real time. A photo can portray one side of a story but too easily crop out the other. You can shoot with altered lighting, backdrop, context, thus impacting mood and story implication.

As Ric Stevens (Deputy Editor at the Press) said today, you can never take too much care when selecting a photograph to accompany a news story.

What makes good photojournalism?

Photographer Paul Comon said great photographers take images that “cross language barriers, appeal to people of all age groups, and to individuals of both sexes equally.”

“Subject content, and its proper treatment, is the most important element of any image.”

International expert on photojournalism Ken Kobre said the most dramatic photojournalism results not from city desk assignments, but from breaking news situations.

The most powerful shots are “real”, not prearranged; photographers are observers, not stage-directors.

This means that the best time to take photographs often isn’t the best time to do an interview.

Kobre said that “the photographer and reporter should not become joined at the hip. Each has different needs. One is following the action as it flows down a street, while the other is checking a quote and making sure the name is spelled correctly.”

But what if the “photographer” and the “reporter” are the same journalist?

The benefit of writers taking photographs is their background knowledge of the story. This contextual awareness ensures that words and images develop alongside each other, in the most complementary way.

As news moves online, we are provided with literally limitless space for uploading images without incurring additional costs. Given the visual-heavy nature of the internet, photojournalism is on the rise.

Sam Ruttyn’s Nikon Walkley award winning photo essay in the Sunday Telegraph encapsulates the ideal relationship between photo- and print journalism (and of course it helps that Rosie Squires is a very good writer).

The winning image appeared on the paper’s front page, and accompanied Squires’s article inside.

Ruttyn’s shots of five-year old Josh Carter preparing for another round of brain surgery were unembellished, yet powerful.

Ruttyn described the photo shoot as the most amazing of his career to date.

“My five-year old son Archie is almost the exact same age as Josh so it was quite confronting to watch the surgery up close like I did,” he said.

Ruttyn’s pictures force me to disagree with Charles Ryder. With the Carter images as proof – photography does have the potential to express feelings.

Image credit: Photographic Communication, edited by R. Smith Schuneman