Real Life

Colonial Maori portrait photographers swap rugby stars for prisoners

Photography is therapy for these talented Cambridge women, who are embarking on a brave new project.
Soldier’s Rd Portraits All blacks

In black and white, wearing moko and traditional dress, they stand stoically for their portraits.

In real life, though, sisters-in-law Taaniko and Vienna Nordstrom never stop smiling. Walking into their home studio in the small Waikato town of Cambridge, you can immediately feel their warmth and generosity, and the passion for their business, Soldier’s Rd Portraits, is undeniable.

Four years ago, they began taking vintage photographs of people in Maori, Pasifika, Native American and colonial regalia in Taaniko’s parents’ garage with just a table cloth, piu piu and korowai.

They’ve gone on to take roughly 11,000 portraits all around the world – their customers include sports stars and actors, and even an Austrian archduchess had a private sitting on a superyacht.

Taaniko, the stylist, is the driver of the business, brimming with new ideas, while Vienna captures the magic behind the lens.

They became friends as teenagers and later, Vienna became the sister Taaniko had always wanted after she met and married her brother Ezra. The couple now have four children, Cruz (7), Eden Rose (5), Leah (2) and Wolfe (3 months). Taaniko (29) calls Vienna (30) a “quiet superwoman”.

The young mum has continued to work and travel, taking her youngest children with her. In fact, while pregnant with Wolfe, Vienna went into labour while she and Taaniko were driving back to Cambridge after a photography sitting in Tauranga.

Vienna with baby Wolfe, who joins his mum and aunty on their trips across the country.

“We have done some motivational talks at places like Wintec, and my favourite part is telling the girls that you can be a career woman and a mum, if you work hard. We’re lucky to be able to chose when we work – so it’s good for my kids and good for me,“ Vienna tells.

When Leah was a baby, she travelled with her mum and aunt at least five times to Australia, where their work is hugely popular.

Getting dressed and sitting for a portrait can prove to be emotional for homesick Kiwis whose children have never visited New Zealand.

“We have cried, especially when other people cry,“ Taaniko explains. “Through watching people’s reactions to the process, we have realised that reclaiming your identity is really powerful. It doesn’t matter if you are Maori or not – this is therapy for a lot of people.”

All Black Liam Messam was one of their customers.

As former caregivers for Child Youth and Family, Taaniko and Vienna met many children whose parents were incarcerated, so this year, they’re embarking on a brave new project behind the prison walls, where they hope to inspire positive change.

For the two beauties, pitching their idea to inmates in the Te Ao Maarama Maori Focus group of Waikeria Prison was nerve wracking.

“I said to Vienna, ’We have to look staunch so they know not to mess with us!’” Taaniko laughs. “But by the time we sat down, we were both crying because it was so emotional. There was the traditional Maori welcome and when we turned the corner, the prisoners performed a haka. It was so inspiring – it was affirmation of our dream.”

Austrian Archduchess Francesca Von Habsburg and her son Ferdinand.

The prison has agreed to begin a pilot programme for 30 men, which will hopefully begin later this year. After the women had shared their story, the men were asked which of them would like their own portraits done. All 50 raised their hand.

“We want to use the portraits as therapy. Eventually, these men will be back in the community amongst us – don’t we want them to be the most rehabilitated that they can be?”

The pair also hope to take Soldier’s Rd back to the US this year –where the All Blacks will play the USA on the aptly named Soldier’s Field in Chicago. And with thousands of Kiwis living in the UK, they also hope to visit London.

“I know my view isn’t shared with everyone, but I believe there needs to be more opportunities for people of non-Maori descent to express and explore Maori culture. Kiwi expats might not have Maori ancestry, but they grew up in New Zealand and did the haka at school. When non-Maori wear the moko, it changes the way they feel in their hearts.”

Vienna (left) and Taaniko have been close friends since they were teenagers

For now, though, the pair will continue to travel the country as they save for their next big adventure – their gear squeezed in just two bags and with baby Wolfe along for the ride. Money might be tight, but these girls are living their dream.

“We may be broke, but we’re rich in stories,” laughs Taaniko.

Words: Anastasia Hedge

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