A favorite son of New Zealand, photographer Derek Henderson has been at the pinnacle of his industry for decades, first in fashion photography and, more recently, engaged in personal and fine art projects. Henderson shared with us some of his favorite images of the people and places of his homeland.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
DP: Let’s start with New Zealand. When did you leave?
In 1987. Since I left, the country has grown. It’s like the saying, “The more time you spend away, the more you have a bit of a love affair with home.” Maybe you see it with rose-tinted glasses — and it isn’t without its problems, of course — but I do now pine for New Zealand. Living in Sydney and going back and forth six or so times a year for a long time, it has just gotten better and better. When I left, I was like, “What a shithole. Nothing is happening here. No art. It’s just sheep and rugby.” All of that, which wasn’t necessarily true by any means, but when you’re young, you just want to travel. But with the world becoming a smaller place with the Internet, I think probably now people look at it and think it’s one of the best places in the world to live.
DP: Where are some places in New Zealand that can’t be missed?
If you really want to see the real New Zealand — or at least the part I love, then head to the East Cape of the North Island. You can drive from Gisborne, and you want to take three or four days to do it. There are incredible empty beaches for miles upon miles; you can just rip all of your clothes off and run into the water. If you keep going around the cape, you end up on the other side, where there are a lot of little bed-and-breakfasts on the beach run by locals. The Māori population there is really big. It’s fantastic: You can go fishing, you can go camping. It’s unbelievable and untouched. If you go to the very top of the North Island, the scenery up there is wonderful, and you can see where the two seas of two different colors actually meet and form a kind of wave. And it’s very spiritual for the Māori people. It’s where they say the spirit’s leading to go back to Hawaii.
DP: I want to ask you about taking that now famous picture of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. There are two, dare I say, iconic images of her, that is one of them. Tell us about that day and how it all happened.
The portrait of Jacinda Ardern was commissioned by American Vogue and Anna Wintour. It was early days, and [Ardern] had just become prime minister; it was shockingly easy to organize, and she was so relaxed and at ease. The security guy was incredibly friendly and casual and didn’t walk around with guns, which really struck me. We were waiting and a bit nervous, and I was thinking, “Don’t fuck this up.” Next thing you know, she just turned up, driving her station wagon, hopped out in a summer dress, looked around and said, “Hi, you must be the photographer.”
She was just bright-eyed and hugely engaging, not like you imagine a politician to be. We start shooting and of course, I’m a little bit apprehensive. I’m not quite sure what to say. So, I began saying, “Can you please move to the left, Prime Minister?” She was getting comfortable, and I got a sense she wanted to help me do the best job I could do. Before long, I could not believe what I was saying to her. I just turned into this horrible fashion photographer with the prime minister of New Zealand: “Let’s do this! Let’s do that!” “What are you doing? Don’t do that!” “That’s terrible!” “That’s fantastic.” “That’s good!” “Stand up a bit taller.” “Be proud!” “Be strong, be sexy!” And her husband was laughing his head off. I brought my daughter because I wanted her to meet this woman, and at the end I introduced my daughter. [Ardern] was so engaged — I couldn’t believe the conversation she was having with her. She is the head of the government in New Zealand, and they were really talking about the environment and all kinds of stuff. I’m so grateful for that moment. Even now, I can see how the prime minister showed her that, as a woman, she can do whatever she wants.
DP: I was really interested in your 2004 series, The Terrible Boredom of Paradise. Can you explain a little bit about what that was?
I was living in the U.K., and I was getting a bit more serious about doing my own personal projects and fine art work, and that led to The Terrible Boredom of Paradise. The title is a bit of an oxymoron, because you can’t really have a terrible paradise, so a lot of people didn’t quite get that. New Zealand used to be very claustrophobic. It is a critique on the country in a way, but it did start out as a road trip around the country, which I love doing. It basically stemmed from memories of when we were kids, my parents packed us in the car with a caravan on the back and we’d drive to some faraway beach or to the South Island. We lived on the North Island, so catching the ferry across from Wellington, well, that was a real adventure. We’d end up in some quiet small town on the coast at the beach in a campground and it was amazing. So these pictures really are a reflection of that. I’m always framing the images as though they were out of their car window, as if I was 10 years old, going through these small, empty towns when everything was shut at 5:30 in the evening, and then through the landscapes around the country that I love.
DP: Tell me a little bit about your Māori teenagers series.
Oh, that just sort of happened. I would go to places that are populated mainly by Māori people and would just be drawn to photographing them. I wanted a real representation of them, and photography is just a good way to get into that community. I would always return to those places and take the pictures that I had taken with me, and because it’s a small community, it got around. So I can now go to places up north and they know who I am: “There’s that old guy that takes photos.” I go into places now where there’s my picture framed on the wall. When the Europeans arrived, the Māori people quickly understood that there was this thing called photography, so they wanted all their chiefs photographed. It kind of continues in a way in the places I go back to. Now there’s one family I’ve been visiting for twenty years. When I roll up, all the cousins come out and then they’re straight on the phone, saying, “Derek’s back. Quick, get your picture taken!” There is a grandma — she’s kind of in charge, because in the Māori community, women are the matriarchs — who is literally calling the shots. I’m just relegated to taking the pictures, while she’s choosing which kid and telling me she doesn’t like a particular background and that I should use another. It’s all good fun, and I love going back each time.
Co-Founder and CEO David Prior was formerly Contributing International Editor of Condé Nast Traveler and Contributing Editor at Vogue Living. David was named by Bloomberg Businessweek as “One to Watch” in 2018 as part of the publication’s prestigious Global 50: the people who defined business in 2017.