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Career

Meet the American lecturer who is continuing the legacy of Kiwi photographer Marti Friedlander

Dr Sophia Powers is carrying on the legacy of photography legend Marti Friedlander.

By Fleur Mealing
"As an American, I never thought that one day I'd end up in New Zealand, teaching students about the life and works of one of Aotearoa's most legendary photographers – but here I am!
I'm the first-ever recipient of the Marti Friedlander Lectureship at the University of Auckland, and I think I'm really lucky to be here lecturing about the incredibly important art that is photography.
We're all photographers now – we all take pictures with our phones, and we look at so many images all the time. Everyone should have a visual literacy of how to decode images, not just students!
My journey here started in Massachusetts. My mum was a psychology professor and my dad an artist, so I guess it makes sense that I've ended up where I am!
After bouncing around the east and west coasts of the US for my under-graduate degree, masters and PhD, I travelled to India and continued my research.
I was blown away when I arrived there – the social complexity is extraordinary.
It's the same reason I love New York – at any given moment there are 50 different things happening at once. I became addicted to trying to under-stand that sort of situation.
Marti herself came to New Zealand from London, a huge metropolis, and she made her name photographing daily life in comparatively sleepy New Zealand.
As I started to learn her story, I was really struck by how adventurous she'd been to come and make her life in New Zealand, a place she didn't know. I came here from New York and Delhi, so I understand – I thought it was remarkable she could find such magic and mystery in a new place.
I saw an ad for this job online and I thought it would be amazing. There are so many brilliant contemporary photographers from all over the world that I didn't know, so it didn't surprise me at all that there was someone with a wonderful history that I wasn't familiar with.
I sent in my application and was delighted and surprised to hear back!
My husband, Martin, and I packed up our lives, and I was so excited to start my career in a completely different continent.
I love that the position focuses on photography.
Having a photography specialist at the University of Auckland is brand new, and it's an incredible position as it was endowed by the Marti Friedlander Trust.
Establishing such as a trust was also a remarkable act of generosity by Marti's husband, Gerrard − she passed away in 2016 following a battle with breast cancer.
The trust has made my job possible, as well as allow students to learn about photography in a way they wouldn't otherwise.
Before coming to New Zealand to take on the Marti Friedlander Lectureship Sophia worked in India.
The best part of my job is the students.
I love thinking and talking about photographs and art history, but when you see a student learning about these things for the first time, you just remember how amazing it is.
In fact, I think any time students have the chance to learn about something a bit more specialised is a wonderful opportunity.
Every genre of art history is important in its own way, but I think photography is becoming more and more relevant to everybody's day-to-day lives.
Dr powers says the students are the best part of her job.
I reckon Marti would have been thrilled about the lectureship. Any photographer would hope that people could have the opportunity to think carefully and deeply about photographs, and understand their history.
I have to say, when people learn about my job they often say things such as, 'I knew Marti! I loved her, she was an amazing woman, she was such a firecracker.'
I feel like I would have really, really liked her, and I'm sad I never got the chance to meet her.
I'm not a photographer myself anymore − I did a bit in high school and I think I'd like to get back into it at some point, but I think after you study, for me at least, I would have such high standards for myself that perhaps it might be hard!
Martin (48) has been here in New Zealand with me. He had a sabbatical from his job as a professor of philosophy and I think he's really fallen in love with the country.
He looks forward to spending as much time as he can here when he's not teaching. When I'm not teaching, I spend some time in New York as well.
So far, I've really, really enjoyed New Zealand. It's incredibly beautiful – I guess everyone says that – but the plant life is just incredible. I feel like I'm living in an enchanted kingdom!"
If you could study anything else, what would it be?
That's hard! Writing.
Do you have a favourite artist?
No, too many!
One thing about New Zealand that we do better than the US?
Salmon.

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