by Elaine Smith

Published on 08/01/ 2016


At the heart of Tim’s work is the psychological landscape, and nowhere is this more evident than in his series Vestiges. These photographs were taken after the devastating earthquakes that hit Christchurch in September 2010 and February 2011, the latter of which took the lives of 185 people. Vestiges shows some of the damage done to the environment; the flooding, the land subsidence, the liquefaction. More than this, however, these forlorn unpeopled images are documents of the psychological: the emptiness, the sadness, the devastation, the desolation, and the loss felt by the people of Christchurch.
Before demolition. River Road, Avonside Residential Red Zone, Christchurch 2014.

Elaine Smith : Can you tell us about the importance of Christchurch and its people to your work?
Tim J Veling : My work in Christchurch is generally defined by concepts of home and belonging. I was not born in here, but I feel very much connected to and at home in this city. A large part of this is due to family and friends who live in Christchurch but, if I’m honest, it’s more a result of me slowly building a connection to this place through making work and interacting with the community that surrounds me.
Avonside Residential Red Zone, Keller Street, Christchurch, 2016. Looking West across cleared land after flooding.
Avonside Residential Red Zone, Keller Street, Christchurch, 2015. Non-indigenous plants and domestic greenery cleared from residential red zone.

TJV : I also think that compared to the other main cities of New Zealand, Christchurch is somewhat the poor cousin in terms of the art community’s general level of photographic education. Through my own work with the camera as well as my teaching at the University of Canterbury, one of my key motivations to stay in Christchurch is to turn this around.

Just thinking about the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, it’s obvious that photography has played a huge role in helping foster a sense of collective, community identity, both in terms of the here and now, but also how that community might reconcile the memory of what was with what it is morphing into.
Today, Christchurch is a very psychologically charged environment. It’s hard to walk down the road without sensing ghosts.
Avonside / Richmond Residential Red Zone, River Road, Christchurch, 2015. New soil for levelling and replanting of cleared land.
The Crusader. Keller Street, Avonside Residential Red Zone, Christchurch 2013.

“Today, Christchurch is a very psychologically charged environment. It’s hard to walk down the road without sensing ghosts.”

ES : What is it you wished to convey through your series of photographs taken in Christchurch after the earthquake?

TJV : After the earthquakes, there was a period of time that I genuinely wanted to give up photography. On the surface of things, that might sound like a very strange and melodramatic thing to say – one might think the drama and trauma that surrounded everyday life here would have been brilliant inspiration for some kind of humanistic photography project – but I was really appalled by the conduct of the media and unthinking, opportunistic public, that I couldn’t think of anything worse than picking up my camera and being associated with the throngs of people snapping away in the face of so much suffering.
Regrowth after demolition. Between Bracken and Keller Streets. Avonside Residential Red Zone, Christchurch 2014.
Avonside Residential Red Zone, Banks Avenue, Christchurch, 2014. Tennis court behind cleared estate.

After a period of about two or three months, I emailed Alec Soth, who I had met in Auckland while taking part in a workshop that Harvey Benge with had organised at Auckland University of Technology. I remembered him saying something about being asked to photograph New Orleans for TIME magazine after Hurricane Katrina. He said he’d turned the opportunity down because he thought that although he’d made a lot of work there as part of his Sleeping By The Mississippi project, it didn’t feel right for him, as a relative outsider, to go there and photograph such devastation.

Unlike him with New Orleans, I was a true insider and if anyone should photograph what was happening in Christchurch it should be someone like me; that the trick was to find a way to do it that would separate me from the people I was reacting so strongly against.
Since then, I have engaged in several long term projects to do with the aftermath of the quakes. I see these projects eventually coming together and being one project; an archive of work that reveals, through the depiction of subtle details changing over time, the dramatic effects the earthquakes have had on the social-political, built and natural landscape of Canterbury.
Avonside Residential Red Zone, Avonside Drive, Christchurch, 2015. “RIP Freckles”.
Dad/Pete/Opa, 20/11/2014.


ES : Can you tell us a little about the experience of photographing your father through his terminal illness from cancer and why it was important to you to photograph him?
TJV : I’ve always taken photographs of my family. A large part of my work revolves around elements of autobiography, and dad was always near the centre of my life.

For me to put the body of work I made about my father into context, I need to explain that my parents got divorced when I was 13. For about 10 years afterwards, they hardly spoke a word to each other and I acted as something of a middleman if one wanted to communicate something to the other. I guess it’s a common story for a child of divorced parents, but I found it extremely difficult. In a way, it felt like I was being forced to live a double life, split between each parent.
We left the specialist’s office and wandered outside to find some kind of normality over a cup of coffee. As we entered a cafe and moved to sit at table, we bumped into my father. At this point my parents hadn’t talked to each other at all in several years, but Dad knew straight away that something was wrong. He sat with us and Mum told him the news. Without hesitation, Dad offered to cook and clean for her and even tend to her garden when she needed help with it. From that moment on, they became friends again.
Dad/Pete/Opa, 01/11/2014.
Dad/Pete/Opa, 06/03/2015

We wanted to communicate something of familial bonds and while it was a book about Mum’s cancer and treatment, it was more importantly about love, family and forgiveness.

It was more importantly about love, family and forgiveness.

Dad was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in October, 2014. He refused any kind of treatment that would prolong his life. Doctors predicted that he’d live for approximately three months and, if lucky, he might survive to see my daughter Frankie’s first birthday. I was with him when he received the news, and he accepted the diagnosis without any signs of grief or emotion. He just turned to look at me and said that he was ready to die; that he had witnessed me, his only son get married and start a family. He said it made him beyond happy to know that my wife and I were happy together and that witnessing his granddaughter’s first steps was the best thing he could ever have wished for in his life.
Dad/Pete/Opa, 03/03/2015.
Dad /Pete /Opa, 21/03/2015.

Dad died a month after Frankie’s first birthday. After spending some time coming to terms with the loss, I got to scanning my negatives – I shot over one hundred rolls of film during the course of what turned out to be five months. When I began to examine all the little details contained within the photographs, it struck me that while on the one hand, the images very clearly describe Dad’s physical decline in health, the story the final, edited body of work conveys is far more layered than that.
In essence, beyond being a very personal record of a person dealing with illness – just like the book I made with my mother – it communicates something of the strong bond our family shares. As my father is shown getting weaker, my daughter is seen to be growing up and taking her first steps. Mum is captured dropping in and out to help out and lend an ear, while my wife, Lizzie and I sit and drink a beer with him every evening at 5pm. Dad died on March the 24th, 2015. I was with him when he passed. He was cremated the next day wearing his favorite pair of well-worn blue jeans, the pockets full with photographs of family and friends.