When Oxfam approached Auckland commercial photographer Kristian Frires, the non-profit had three briefs in one: travelling to Tonga to showcase the results of its work and the products of a partner company, Heilala Vanilla — and to shoot an editorial for Mindfood magazine.
Each client had its own particular style, requiring Frires to approach every situation from multiple angles. For Oxfam, that involved documentary-style photography of a variety of projects. “If they’d provided a well with a freshwater tank, for example, they’d want to show people using it,” says Frires. “They also supported organic farming, so we photographed people selling their produce.”
Another major subject was a coconut processing facility Oxfam had set up. Coconuts are so abundant in Tonga that many go to waste; but with the ability to turn them into coconut oil, locals can earn an income from harvesting them. “We basically followed the story from start to finish — where do coconuts come from?”
First they are collected, then cracked, crushed, husked and pressed to extract coconut oil, which is then exported under the auspices of Heilala Vanilla. Heilala, in turn, required brand-focused images from Frires in order to advertise their products and showcase how their collaboration with Oxfam was creating opportunities on the islands.
Mindfood, by contrast, required a picture-postcard approach, focused on the brighter side of island life and the lush, local produce. “The art director said, ‘I just want it to look beautiful — happy people, close-ups of hands holding things’.”
Frires’ photography had to encompass sweeping, idyllic island views, plus stories of employment and industry, and portraits of the people involved in every step of the process. “That’s one of the biggest challenges: getting into a situation where you can just get beautiful shots that have impact, but doing it a way that isn’t interfering and that isn’t too staged. So you’ve got to be very quick in building a rapport and assessing who might be open to having some shots taken,” he says. “You strike up a bit of a conversation, and get a bit of a laugh, and you can gauge who is a bit more open and relaxed just by the way they react — you see who’s into it and who’s not.”
As well as the rigorous schedule, island life brought other challenges — sweltering heat, erratic transportation. Frires was badly sunburned, then separated from his luggage for several days, stranded on an outlying island while he waited out the remnants of a storm.
But he also had the opportunity to make portraits to add to a personal project, Pacific Youth: “Children are so open to being photographed, they just run to the camera. I’m fascinated by the kind of life they lead — wild and free.”
Photographer’s website: kristianfrires.com