• Tue, 1, Dec, 2020 - 5:00:AM

Time to reflect: A Year in Aotearoa

Exhibition / Markus Spiske / Pexels

A bit cliche, but only because it never retires, is that saying ‘a picture says a thousand words’.

It feels appropriate to drop it now because I have thousands of words to say about the year 2020. Thousands.

I could say that it feels bizarre to live through so many defining moments in world history. I could reveal that I think 2020 is just the first year in a period of political unrest, environmental degradation and new threats to societies. I could retell the story of my sister potentially being Covid-19 patient zero in NZ way back in January (she wasn’t but it’s, like, the only cool anecdote I have).

I could ponder whether Gen Z’s desensitisation to— well, everything, is a travesty or a necessary adaptation. I’ve discovered my generation has the ability to laugh and meme their way through the most shocking of news developments. Is this a defense mechanism or a sign of the times? Neither? Both?

Perhaps we all feel similarly reflective.

That’s where A Year in Aotearoa comes in. The annual New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year Competition has produced a body of work that is very Kiwi, very 2020 and very cool. A Year in Aotearoa is a collection of the best of the submissions to the competition, 40 of Aotearoa’s finest geographic and journalistic photographs. They were snapped from locked-down homes, from mountain peaks and from the fringes of sleepy towns.

The photos from A Year in Aotearoa tell the story of what has been at the forefront of New Zealanders’ minds this year. The natural environment and wildlife make as prominent a feature they always do, with our waterfalls, glaciers and mountains depicted in their once-pristine glory. 

I say once-pristine specifically with Mitchell Clark’s photograph of the Fox Glacier neve in mind. Smoke and ash deposits from the Australian wildfires had marbled the frosty white landscape, emphasising the natural contours of the snow.

The collection also features social photostories, covering the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque shootings, the BLM movement and the daily grind of lockdown life. Becki Moss’s photostories cover those latter two, each one a stepping stone of a journey through home haircuts, protests down Queens Street and sunbathing on concrete.

My favourite photograph was taken by Alden Williams, the winner of the Photographer of the Year Competition. It’s Christchurch at dawn from afar and slightly above, wrapped in pale fog. The rising trees scattered around the town cast hundreds of parallel grayscale shadows against the chilly sunlight. 

I can’t quite put my finger on what exactly about the photo calls me — I just know that it does — but maybe it’s the familiarity. I know intimately sleepy towns, cold mornings and midwinter fog. I know that only New Zealand trees look like New Zealand trees and only New Zealand roofs look like New Zealand roofs.

I know the country has been through a lot this year, but it also had all the previous years, and probably will all the following.

People have been traumatised, comforted, challenged and uplifted. These photographs are a summary and a reflection of our collective experiences. 

Whether in person or online, do yourself the favour of viewing them.

A Year in Aotearoa is on display at the New Zealand Maritime Museum Hui Te Ananui a Tangaroa until March 30. The winning, runner-up and highly commended photographs are also available online.


  • Photography /
  • Photojournalism /
  • Arts /
  • Aotearoa /
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