Cornell Tukiri chosen from thousands for NZ Geographic photographer of year final

By Jessica Tyson

Photojournalist and documentary photographer Cornell Tukiri has been chosen from 6000 entries as a finalist in the New Zealand Geographic Photographer of the Year award.

Tukiri, of  Ngaati Hikairo, Ngaati Whaawhaakia and Kāi Tahu, says its an honour to be named a finalist. Not one, but two of his entries were chosen in the final 54.

"I've been working in this freelance photojournalist documentary photography area for quite a while. I think it's just recognition of the work you put in, but also recognition of the stories of the people who are in the photos," Tukiri says.

Haka that took place on the day of the hikoi led by Ngāti Whātua. Photographer: Cornell Tukiri

His first entry named a finalist is a series of five photos taken during a hikoi led by Ngāti Whātua members from their marae in Ōrākei to the Auckland High Court in February this year.

Tukiri says the purpose of the hikoi was to discuss and make iwi issues clear about  Waitangi claims within Tāmaki Makaurau.

“To capture the moments as a photographer is an honor and a privilege really. I mean, the stories unfolding in front of us and we're there to witness it. That's the crux of photojournalism to me.”

Photographer: Cornell Tukiri

His other entry was of a Tongan whānau cooking fish heads at home in Onehunga, Auckland, with the fish given as a koha by the non-profit Kaiika project. Kaiika is run out of Papatuānuku Kōkiri Marae in Māngere.

“They do some amazing work Lionel and Val over there. They work to distribute, tonnes and tonnes of fish heads and frames that would have otherwise been discarded by commercial and leisure fishers. So I just thought, ‘Wow, what an amazing kaupapa that is’.”

Photographer: Cornell Tukiri

During the Covid-19 lockdown, Kaiika has helped support whanau who haven’t been able to work or go to the supermarket to buy food.

“To me, that kaupapa was really important to tell. And I pitched that to the New York Times and it ran that story,” Tukiri says.

Tukiri has travelled the world for his mahi. He studied at the Market Photo Workshop in Johannesburg, South Africa where he completed the Photojournalism and Documentary Programme in 2013.

He's also worked for the New York Times, The Times of London, the UK Telegraph, ESPN, The Times South Africa, Quartz and others. His work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera, The Independent, The Huffington Post, ESPN Cricinfo, Mana Magazine and the Spinoff.

He has a particular interest in news photography, historical injustice, Māori issues, the environment and the stories behind sports. But he says covering Māori issues is what he enjoys most.

“To be able to photograph Māori and my journey here in Aotearoa is something that's probably the most special thing I can do," he says.

“I think especially being a Māori photographer in an editorial sense, there's not that many of us around. So I think it's really special when I get to tell the story of my people through my lens."

Since there aren’t many Maori photojournalists, he encourages rangatahi Māori and Pacifika to pick up a camera.

“If we can tell stories from a young age it becomes easier as we get older. I learned in Africa, I've trained as a photographer, and over there young kids just don't have access to these sorts of things because it's just a different world over there. So I would say i young people can then get out there and show us what their world is like.”

Votes are open for the People's Choice Award where people can choose their favourite finalists here. 

Photos by Cornell Tukiri named as finalists in the NZ Geographic Photographer of the Year award: