Lucien Rizos: Street Photography and the Springbok Tour

Cameras are an excellent tool to counter or inhibit brutality by police or tour supporters.

‘Some tips for demonstrators’, 1981 Springbok Tour Demonstrator’s Handbook, Auckland: M.O.S.T, 1981

Lucien Rizos started producing his ‘New Zealand photographs’ in the late-1970s. Recently returned from a year in Romania, armed with the example of Robert Frank’s The Americans, and travelling the country as a violinist with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, Rizos set about capturing the complexities and tensions of Muldoon-era New Zealand. 

By the tail end of the 1970s, such a documentary project was increasingly out of step with contemporary developments in photography. Rizos’s dogged determination to push this outdated model waned in the early stages of the following decade. He inched away from a documentary mode, embracing a more conceptual approach to street photography that removed the presence of the photographer and deferred to the process of making photographs. In 1984, Rizos stopped making photographs entirely, shifting to the manipulation of found and appropriated images, and eventually filmmaking.

The ‘New Zealand photographs’, along with the bulk of Rizos’s collection, are held in the Photographic Archive of the Alexander Turnbull Library. Here the photographs are primarily valued for the historical information they ‘objectively’ provide, the glimpses provided into life in New Zealand in the 1970s and early 1980s. But recently, Rizos and others have returned to these photographs with new perspectives. Rizos has remade and revamped the book of ‘New Zealand photographs’, almost 30 years after initating the project. A touring exhibition of these photographs was held in Photospace in 2007. A touring exhibition kicked off at Blenheim’s Millennium Public Art Gallery in December 2008. The ‘New Zealand photographs’ have slipped back into the public realm in a variety of guises.

One of the photographs in this new version of the book shows four figures exiting a doorway into a brightly lit street. They could be a family unit, or at least represent a cross section of society. Leading the pack is a young man with flared trousers and long hair pushed beneath a ‘Wynn’s’ branded cap. A woman cautiously follows, flanked by an older man whose wool-knit jersey reappears throughout Rizos’s Frank-inspired project as the ubiquitous uniform of the good kiwi bloke. 

The photograph advances some of the key themes of the ‘New Zealand’ book such as the physical and psychological spaces between individuals, and the line between public and private experience. But this narrative elides the fact that the photograph belongs to an offshoot project, the original context and meanings of which are stripped away through its presentation in the book.

This was one of a series of photographs taken during the Springbok tour of 1981, in or around the day of the second test in Wellington on August 29th.[1] Rizos stumbled upon another event taking place at this time—a motorshow at the Wellington Overseas Terminal. Drawing what he now considers to be a crude connection between car culture and rugby culture, and assuming that these people were probably pro-tour supporters, Rizos started photographing the stream of stepping out of the motor show onto the streets of Wellington—a heavily contested space of mass protest, police brutality, and some vigilante justice dished out by those who determined to see the tour proceed.

This series sits oddly both in terms of Rizos’s practice and the larger body of protest photography taken up in response to the Springbok tour. Iconic photographs by Ans Westra, John Miller, Peter Hannken, Robin Morrison, Bruce Connew, Gil Hanly and Peter Black attest to the tour as a mobilising force for artists as much as any other group. Rizos would not be counted (nor wish to be counted) amongst this group celebrated by David Eggleton as ‘the phalanx of recording angels.’[2] He sort other ways of channelling the unfolding tensions and actions than could be achieved by placing oneself and the camera on or about the frontlines.

Unlike all of these artists, Rizos’s photographs are only obliquely about the tour and the protest.  With one notable exception, there is no dramatic imagery of flailing battons, bloodied protestors, or placards. The exception comes through the final image in the book that collects these images together. After the 37 photographs of individuals or small groups exiting the motorshow, this final work captures the riot squad with batons directed at unseen protestors at Luxford Street in Beramphore. This chilling finale jolts any reading of the preceding images. Suddenly all the glances cast in the previous photographs look more accusatory, the body language more guarded, that hand placed on the shoulder more protective.

When granted the context provided by this final photograph, the earlier images start working in a very different manner. The ‘Breakaway’, branded jersey worn by one man now provides irresistable references to the position on the side of the rugby scrum, a divided society, or New Zealand’s defiant stance on sporting relations with South Africa. The young woman in the following photograph holds a motorcycle helmet, a key part of the protestor’s armoury. She’s followed by a boy dressed in a sheriff’s costume complete with holster and badge, playing out a boy’s own fantasy of law and order closer to home than he probably imagines. The door becomes more than a space through which to physically exit. It’s a threshold into new political realities or an entirely new country.

The absence of dramatic protest imagery reveals Rizos’s aversion to any form of photojournalism, but also his thinking about the issues raised by the tour. For Rizos, the key issue was one of personal responsibility and accountability. The protests and the art that documented or supported it were often directed against those who made or enforced government policy—powerfully symbolised through the faceless riot squad hidden raising their long batons. With the exception of the final photograph, these figures are relegated to the sidelines of Rizos’s series as mere instruments in the decision making process. These photographs insist that in a democracy it’s the voice of the people that drives these decisions, and it is here where the power and responsibility rests.

The more conventional protest imagery generated by the tour argues that if this is how a democracy should function, the system was failing. Picturing the protest and the protestors implictly questioned the workings of a democracy that both ignores such widespread expression and quashes its free expression.

Rizos’s overriding concern with the complexities of New Zealand society led him away from the protestors to a wider and less determinable body of public opinion represented by the motor show visitors. But just as his approach to documentary refused to seek out heroes, this was no witch-hunt or shaking of the apathetic. Driven by attempts to read the stance of strangers encountered on the street, Rizos’s project explores the psychological effects of the tour on a fractured society.

The photographs chart how people viewed and presented themselves and others in the public sphere at a time when battlelines where clearly drawn. The series taps into that condition of living in a society on edge—where one’s clothing, attitude, and actions (like the decision to attend a motor show on such a portentous day) potentially marked belonging or difference to the newly formed and guarded group identities forged around the tour. Such scrutiny was needed at a time when plain-clothes police posed as protestors, and protestors masqueraded as rugby supporters to gain access to grounds.

Rizos’s project is bound up with these newly intensified ways of scrutinising each other. The photographs avoid protest content but are nevertheless confrontational—especially in the direct relationship set up between photographer and subject in a highly charged situation. Rizos’s street photography was more often based around concealing the presence of the photographer. Traffic Lights, another series started in 1981, exemplifies this approach by using a regulated urban space to capture people in an unguarded state. These photographs were taken from the hip with a rangefinder camera.

The Springbok tour photographs insist that this unguarded moment is impossible at a time when a position had to be taken, and potentially defended against others around the dinner table or on the street corner. Rizos developed an uncharacteristically confrontational approach in response to these heightened tensions. Working in full view of his subjects, Rizos’s defiant raising of the camera to eye level was a provactive challenge that demanded a physical response.

This need to capture people with their guards up rather than down was a gesture well in keeping with the role photography took on during this time of bolstered security and surveillance. Rizos was certainly not the only one using the camera as a profiling tool. Police threatened court action to claim possession of any photographs taken in the public sphere to be used as evidence against protestors, while also arguing that the actions of the riot squads were being sensationalised through photographs in the media.[3]

Rizos now considers this surrendering of the covert identity of the street photographer for a more public and politicised role as a regrettable shift brought on by the sheer emotions and frustrations of the tour.[4] Judged according to the objectives of street photography, this series is too consciously constructed  and heavily pre-determined in its approach, imagery, and themes. Peter Black, a co-conspirator in Wellington street photography, is similarly ambivalent about his photographs of the protests.[5] This is probably for similar reasons to Rizos—the very concept of how this mode of photography should function is swept aside for other concerns. But Rizos’s photographs often explore the private self in the public space. The events surrounding the Springbok tour fundamentally altered the nature of that relationship, forcing a shift in how Rizos worked in that situation.  

Rizos’s accusative approach is loaded with ethical issues. People visiting a motor show are potentially turned into supporters of a racist tour and, by extension, the apartheid system. While a case could be made based on demographics and shared codes of dress, no direct connection can be forged between these subjects and say the aggressive marchers waving ‘Support the tour…Punch a protestor’ placards in Peter Cathro’s photographs taken in the same city at the same time. It is also tempting to draw connections based on geographic proximity between Rizos’s motor show goers and the patrons of the Caledonian Hotel (located in between the Overseas Terminal and Athletic Park) who infamously hurled glasses and jugs at protestors sitting on the road to block access to the ground. Seen in relation to such events and new oppressive police tactics, Rizos’s own act of aggressively aiming the camera at potential pro-tour supporters seems rather less problematic. The ethics of documentary are always subject to larger considerations.

These are not protest photographs. All the rules and ideals of protest art are shunned. With one exception, there is no direct references to the protest or the events that spurred it. The photographs were also never intended to operate in the public realm, and seek to chart rather than sway or galvanise opinion. Yet there is something powerful and complex in the sideways glance these photographs offer to both the Springbok tour and the photographic practices and issues of the period.

In some ways the series is most revealing as a demonstration of the impact that working in a culture of protest had on an artist intent on grappling with documentary and the psychology of New Zealanders at a time when both were up for grabs as never before. The 1970s ‘New Zealand’ channelled in Rizos’s larger project was shattered and further divided by the Springbok tour. There was no way that Rizos’s practice could escape these conditions unscathed.

Art New Zealand, 131, Winter 2009, 31–35.

[1] Rizos cannot recall exactly when these photographs were taken, but thinks they probably just predate the protests in Newtown. Email correspondence with the author, 16 December 2008.

[2] David Eggleton, Into the Light: A History of New Zealand Photography, (Nelson: Craig Potton, 2006), 132.

[3] Ross Meurant, The Red Squad Story, (Auckland: Harlen, 1982), 185-186.

[4] Lucien Rizos, Email correspondence with the author, 16 December 2008.

[5] See Gregory O’Brien, ‘The Place Where They Live’, in Sport 30: Peter Black—Real Fictions, 2003, 55. The contact sheets for Rizos’s Springbok tour photographs show a close up of one smiling face that lacks the self-consciousness of many of the other subjects. Peter Black, only a shadowy presence in his own photographs, regularly pops up as an interloper in Rizos’s contact sheets in this way.