Ko au te awa, ko au te awa ko au / I am the river and the river is me
A portrait of the indegenous people of Whanganui New Zealand
Sun 2 Feb 2014: For the past few weeks I have been looking into my own archive and begun work on a new book about the time I spend 6 months living in a community of Maori tribes along the Whanganui River on the North Island of New Zealand. It was in 1996 and this project was really my first proper attempt at working on something independent and on a large scale. Having looked through my contact-sheets with over 4000 pictures and re-edited a new selection, I will be posting new sets of photographs as they get re-scanned, processed and put into a new layout for a photobook. The name of this project is ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au* which tranlates directly as I am the river and the river is me. This is an expression that the ancestors of the tribes of Whanganui use to say as they travelled the river. It reflects both on my own experience of living within a tribal community along the Whanganui River as well as represents the Maori people's spiritual connection to their ancestral land. With these photographs I wanted to portray how they lived and worked without any romantic conviction of indigenous people living in 'exotic' places.
Click here to view book dummy
Ko Au Te Awa, Ko Te Awa Ko Au*: The tribes of Whanganui take their name, their spirit and their strength from the great river which flows from the mountains of the central North Island to the sea. For centuries the people have travelled the Whanganui River by canoe, caught eels in it, built villages on its banks, and fought over it. The people say, ‘Ko au te awa. ko te awa ko au' (I am the river. The river is me). text by David Young.
I had already spend a year living in New Zealand but had no real contact to the indigenous people and on a visit back to Denmark in 1995 to visit my mentor Finn Larsen he asked me who the Maori were. I didn't have a clue and I felt a bit stupid for not knowing anything about the colonisation of Aetearoa, the indigenous culture or know anybody within their communities. This sparked a curiosity and on a bit of a whim and not really knowing what I was doing I made contact to a Dane who lived in a rural area along the Whanganui River known as the King Country where three major Maori tribal areas meet. I ended up spending 6 months there and it was an incredible experience both on a personal and on a photographic level. I spend the first two months just talking to people, learning phrases of their language well enough to go and speak on the Marae* and explain what I was trying to do. I encountered a lot of suspicion, mistrust and even death threats, but I think my young age and inexperience just kept me going until I met an important tribal leader who blessed me and understood what I was trying to achieve. In the end I got adopted into a Maori tribe, Mangapapapa and were given a native name Pouma Pokaiwhenua (translates as Pillar of Purity and Food of the Earth) and took part in ancient cultural rituals, such as occupying a piece of ancestral land illegally in a national park. In addition to living with the tribe of Mangapapapa who wanted to decolonise its people and return to ancestral way of life I also photographed Maori who had converted to Christianity and may others who just went about their ordinary life in and around the town of Taumarunui - originally a Maori village which linked the central North Island settlements with those down the Whanganui River.
Ancient Landscape, New Zealand, © Martin Toft, April, 1996
Hokio Communicating with a Tree, © New Zealand, Martin Toft, July, 1996
The Marae* ( is a place where the culture can be celebrated, where the Maori language can be spoken, where intertribal obligations can be met, where customs can be explored and debated, where family occasions such as birthdays can be held, and where important ceremonies, such as welcoming visitors or farewelling the dead (tangihanga), can be performed. Like the related institutions of old Polynesia, the marae is a w?hi tapu, a 'sacred place' which carries great cultural meaning.)
Christening at local Marae, New Zealand, © Martin Toft, March, 1996
At the time I was working with an environmental historian from New Zealand, David Young who has written several books about the rich history of the Maori tribes living along the Whanganui River. Initially we put together a proposal for National Geographic but were unsuccessful. I do remember sending some material to Chris Boot who at the time were working for Phaidon Press. He wrote back to me saying that he was interested in seeing more, but somehow I got side tracked with my homeless project. Once I have completed designing a new book dummy I will decide if self-publish is the route I want to take rather than chasing a commercial publisher (and having to subsidise 2/3 of the production cost). In the meantime as book layout progress I will publish little vignettes of pictures and stories to keep the fire burning.
Hangi at a Funeral, © Martin Toft, August, 1996