by Louise Van Rooyen
Louis travelled extensively throughout the Pacific with Glenn during the 80s and 90s. This piece was shared during his funeral service on August 30th 2014.
It is a privilege to share these words about my experiences working with Glenn Jowitt on the Polynesia; Here and There exhibition for the Auckland City Art Gallery and for the Pacific Images book in the 1980’s; and also to share my deepest respect for a dear friend of more than 30 years.
In 1980 I was studying Polynesian ethnography at the University of Auckland when I first met Glenn, at a party, and was impressed by his immense passion for photographing Pacific Island people and cultures. From the outset, and until this day, Glenn’s stated mission was to “celebrate and foster a greater understanding of Polynesian life and cultures; in Auckland and in the homelands”. Here in Auckland, the largest Polynesian city in the world, the colour of Pacific Island life is all around us. Back then; Grey Lynn was arguably the capital of Polynesia and Pacific Images was Glenn’s creative journey from black and white photography into the vibrant world of colour photography. As you can imagine, all Glenn needed to do was to step outside to find his inspiration; and, with his strong positive focus, he had no trouble persuading me to join him on his “awareness-raising” mission when I graduated.
We travelled to five Polynesian countries: Western Samoa, Tokelau, Tonga, Niue and the Cook Islands; Glenn taking photographs while I researched, took notes, asked questions and gathered contact details. We began our journey in Western Samoa where we stayed with Reverend Mua Strickson-Pua’s family. Mua’s Auntie, Leute, was working as a government journalist in Apia back then when she hosted us. Later, she became a titled chief working on important matters through the Samoan Land and Titles Court. The week we arrived, a matai title was being bestowed on a new village chief; and women of the family were busy weaving fine mats for the ritual presentation. The image of Mua’s grandmother with her remarkable fine mat or, ‘ie toga, was taken during this time. The day ended with a traditional kava ceremony served by the oldest daughter of the high chief and Glenn was in the middle of it all taking photographs. Opportunities like these came out of the trusted relationships Glenn had developed the previous year taking photos in Auckland; and he travelled with photographic contact sheets in his camera bag, a technique that proved quite useful throughout the trip.
Travelling in the islands with Glenn Jowitt was an unforgettable experience; we were arrested and almost deported on our very first night. But Glenn had an amazing knack for turning each meeting into an opportunity, and, before long, the Samoan policemen who had arrested us that night were recognising family and friends in Glenn’s contact sheets and helping to open doors for the project. And in the following month, Glenn captured some iconic Samoan images; from the traditional chiefly investiture in Aleipata village near Apia, through the liveliness of Samoan cricket and the otherworldly image of a boy with a bonito on the bigger Samoan island of Savai’i. Living with local families helped us to connect and to find out about community events and upcoming celebrations such as the hair-cutting ceremony in the Cook Islands or the ear piercing and yam blessing ceremonies in Niue and the fundraising festivities after the cyclone in Tonga. It seemed that wherever we went there was an event about to take place. There was so much colour and so many friends to be made. From Samoa we travelled by boat to Tokelau - a small island nation comprising three coral atolls. Most of the houses there had open walls and yet I would lose Glenn on a frequent basis as he wandered in search of photographic opportunities. But it never took long to find him; people would point in Glenn’s general direction where he could often be found taking a random nap in the breezy fale of a newfound friend.
It really was the adventure of a lifetime and Glenn took thousands of photographs of Polynesian festivals, ceremonies and daily life from which a stunning exhibition at the Auckland City Art Gallery was curated. The exhibition catalogue was published in six different Polynesian languages including Maori, and the opening was a magnificent fiafia with traditional dancing and feasting attended by Glenn’s many supporters; leaders of Auckland’s Polynesian communities and a speech by Cath Tizard, the Mayor of Auckland in 1983.
Glenn’s generosity of spirit was endearing and over the years he became like a part of my family. 30 years after our trip to the islands my entire family including my brother, father and daughter all stayed with Glenn after he’d hosted an family afternoon tea in his garden following my mother’s funeral. He never really met a stranger and he was comfortable and at ease around other people’s families and friends. When I lived in Nashville and had helped organize an exhibition of Pacific Images at Vanderbilt University, Glenn soon became firmly entrenched in the lives of my Nashville friends (some with whom he shared a love of country music). It came as no surprise when 17 years ago, I found myself standing beside my dear Nashville friend, Barbara’s, side as she married Glenn’s neighbor, Ian Garner. Their wedding and reception was also held on Glenn’s back deck and garden, as were so many of the best parties over the years. Ian and Barbara have asked me to share these words they have sent from Nashville: <”Glenn Speaking”>.
I concur with Ian that it was a privilege to have had a long and loyal friendship with Glenn Jowitt. He lived his life to the fullest and whenever he met people, there was a hearty and honest connection. He was an authentic person who shared his truth openly with others; a key reason he was so loved.
Glenn was also a deeply committed ambassador of Polynesian culture, both in Auckland and in the homelands. There can be no doubt that he achieved his goal as his work truly “celebrates and fosters a greater understanding of Polynesian life and cultures” a mission to which he remained committed until the end.
It was a privilege to have worked so closely with Glenn and to have shared an enduring friendship for more than 30 years and I am honoured to be able to share some of these memories with all of you.