Rongomai Te Keepa

 Posted by on December 10, 2015  Add comments
Dec 102015
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Friday – I meet Rongomai for the first time. He’s arrived at my girlfriend Kerry’s house (where I’m staying to wait – with fingers crossed – for my UK visa). I want to create his portrait, but it takes days to build up the courage to ask.
Saturday – I escape the house before it fills with 20 or so guests who are in the house for a workshop, and return late in the evening. I ask Kerry about my pounamu, a 50th birthday gift from her which was an anchor after the quakes. I’d left it in her care while we were out of the country. It now feels alien and unfriendly. She rouses Rongamai from his bed to ask him about it.
Sunday – he, along with many others, witnesses my distress and tears …. a combination of missing Nigel (who has had to return to the UK), the cries of a child with stomach cramps, and having to explain my difficult relationship with my pounamu. He later gives me a stone heart carved with ‘kia kaha’ and tells me how he’d seen it abandoned somewhere and having asked the nearest person if it was theirs was told it was now his …. he needed it. Which confused him because he’s strong, healthy and so very happy. I usually am too, but he’s decided he was meant to give it to me and I am grateful.
Monday – over breakfast he and I discuss clothes. According to Rongomai, every man needs a tailor-made charcoal grey suit, with a white shirt and black tie. It can be worn for weddings and funerals, as well as business. I tell him I disagree about the tie – a black tie at a wedding could make it look like you’re going to a funeral. He smiles and thinks I’ve made a good point. He explains about kissing-buttons on jacket sleeves, watch straps and their faces, and belts. He always buys good shoes, but most of his clothes are second hand and says he’s lucky with charity shop purchases and offers to go shopping with me Tuesday afternoon. We learn that our mothers both worked for LWR – mine in Christchurch, his in Ashburton. Mid-morning I ask him if I can take his portrait and he’s very happy to oblige – his daughter wants a black and white photo to put on a picture board. He’s happy for me to share his image on aGathering. He tells me that tourists often ask if they can photograph him – he understands their interest and usually agrees. He’s enjoying our photo shoot and says he’d really like to have one with a dark background and just his face coming out of the dark. It’s a bright, sunny day and I explain the difficulties but we head inside to give it a go, but I can’t find somewhere suitable, and I don’t have lights with me, so decide to give it a go Tuesday evening when he’s back from Hanmer. I select this image as my favourite and edit it – he likes it, a lot. His son picks him up mid-afternoon to take him home to Hanmer, and we hear later how they spent the afternoon – the drive there …. karate practice, where Rongomai’s grandson teaches him some moves …. chicken casserole for dinner. His wife is vegetarian, so he enjoys eating meat when he can. He’s had a magical day.
Tuesday, December 8th, 2015 – we’re having a girls’ road trip to Hanmer, to meet Rongomai and his son at the hot pools, then drive Rongomai back to Christchurch for his last night in town before returning home to Turangi. The phone call comes through just before Woodend. Rongomai died in his sleep, from a heart attack.

My images of Rongomai were taken less than 18 hours before he died. He was a vibrant, happy, healthy man. And then he wasn’t.

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  12 Responses to “Rongomai Te Keepa”

  1. Oh Vicki, how sad. When I first saw this portrait before I read your story I thought what an interesting man with his piercing eyes. You have created a wonderful vision of him. I am sure his family will treasure this image and any others which you share with them. I often wonder why I play with photography but realise that it is when I have created meaningful portraits and everlasting memories that I realise there is a purpose. And that all my play with photography and learning more techniques so that I can make such images as you have in a short period of time, that I begin to understand that my play is worthwhile. Your exercises In making portraits as you travel have been most fruitful. I do hope you receive your visa soon.

    • Thank you Barbara. Yes – I’ve given the family four images from the day and they’re very grateful for them. Rongomai was a very gentle man. Very kind. Very interesting. He didn’t just talk about clothes! 🙂

  2. Sometimes we are given beautiful insights into our lives and how we walk amongst other people – I think you have just had one of those experiences. Rongomai has a face of two halves – have a play with vertically dividing his face and duplicating each section to create the two “sides” of who he is.

  3. Wow Vicki. You were obviously just the right person to come into his life right then, and he in yours. The family will be so grateful to have such a wonderful touchstone to the memories they have of him. I am sad for their loss. Thank you for having the courage to ask. And for sharing this with us.

  4. Thank goodness you took this image It is a striking image of him.. They say this is why the world is round, so you can”t see too far ahead. I feel so sad for his family.

  5. What a wonderful portrait of a strong proud man, I am sure his Whānau will be grateful of this last image. We as photographers often take images that have an impact, you have done this Vicki, more so as you had spent special precious time with him before his death.

  6. Amazing picture and an amazing backstory. Im sure that for you this will help the next time you need to find the courage to ask.

    In this case your courage created a gift for Rongomai, his Whanau, you and us as well.

  7. Vicki, such a touching story for aGathering today. So many things happen in our lives, often with interesting turns. Thanks you much for sharing the intimacy and pain with this image. You have a special gift of time and meaningful conversation with Rongomai and his family the gift of your wonderful images. just think about how all those portraits you have pushed yourself to make have culminated in this amazing image with such significance. Everything has a purpose. Treasure the heart carved with “kia kaha”. It will give you strength. Everything will work out with the visa and getting back to be with Nigel. If it doesn’t, there is another adventure awaiting you both. Kia kaha!

  8. Such a strong image, and when I read your story Vicki it brought tears to my eyes, you were so meant to be there, at that time. The family will always treasure this.

  9. wow. What an experience. What a lesson. The people who touch our lives are so important. Vicky, you do so well to make photographs of the people you encounter. This image and the story behind it show how important that is. I don’t do that. I should.

  10. Thank you all so much for your feedback. I’m going to keep coming back here to work my way through your comments – they’re interesting and they’re helping.

    Those of you who were lucky enough to be able to attend the aGathering team gathering on Sunday will be amused/interested/horrified/or something to hear that I had my camera with me ‘just in case’. Well, you all know what good that did! You all failed the ESP test! 😉 Apparently I’ve got to ask. Always. Somehow.

  11. Vicki, everyone has already said it. The only thing i can add is that besides the wonderful photograph skill you have developed (despite nervousness) your way of telling a story in words as well is fantastic. Please keep on with both aspects of expressing your stories – verbal and visual.

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