Simple photo teaches life lesson

Cpl Willie Apiata and four fellow TF soldiers taken in Whakatane in 2000.  Image courtesy of the Eastern Bay News.

This article was written by Denise Landau, new Assistant Editor of Army News, on the day the Prime Minister announced that Corporal Willie Apiata would be awarded the Victoria Cross for New Zealand.

02 July 2007

Such an incredible event is unfolding all around me.

Today at work, here at Defence Public Relations Unit, we are waiting for the Prime Minister, Helen Clark, to make an announcement that will go down in New Zealand history.  As I look at my watch, it is just after 9.20am.

Public Relations staff were asked to be in at work before 8am by DPRU Director, LT COL Shatford for “an announcement”.

I didn’t know what it was about, but there had been a quiet buzz around the office ever since I arrived here two and a bit weeks ago.  Of course, I am the lowest in the chain so it wasn’t my place to ask too many questions.  And being a little wary of everything, I just did what I was told.

Today, there is a quiet but purposeful energy about the place. Different people around the office and  lots of equipment.  Something’s on their minds. The Commanding Officer of the SAS is here – what the hell is going on? 

The announcement is that Corporal Willie Apiata has been awarded the Victoria Cross.

Mike, our boss, is commanding everything with precision.  The preparation is done, everything planned, everyone knows what they’re doing – now we’re just waiting. 

Waiting for the media frenzy to start.  But to me, what the really astonishing thing is the link I have with this Victoria Cross winner.

Years ago, while I was a reporter on the Eastern Bay News in Whakatane in 2000, I remember doing a photo and story of five young TF soldiers who were about to go on a deployment to East Timor. 

There was one particular soldier who really stood out. He looked so proud to be wearing his uniform and he was really stoked to be formally embarking on a mission. For a soldier, it’s the real thing.

The young men were joking around nervously, as young soldiers do when a little media attention is being paid – especially when you’re taking their photo -  but this guy didn’t joke around so much.  You could tell that he didn’t want to bring any disrepute on the uniform. 

He had a no-nonsense manner.  For him the article was part of the pre-deployment process and just was important as any other military duty.

I took the photos and wrote the story.  Both were published in the Eastern Bay News.  It was a good photo.  The guys looked handsome in their blue United Nations berets and they were so proud of their achievement. To have even come this far, was a huge day in their lives.

To anyone else, the photo was just a picture of five young TF soldiers looking into the camera.  To me it was a special photo.  I don’t know why but I kept a copy with me as a keepsake of something. 

Perhaps I was a little envious of their bravery and soldierly commitment.  In all honesty,  I guess secretly I wanted to go on their adventure as well.

But today as we prepare to break the news to the New Zealanders and the world, the truly amazing thing for me is that I kept that photo all these years.

They say timing is everything.  In mid-June I moved from Taupo to Wellington to take up the role of Assistant Editor, Army News.

While I was doing the big throw out of old stuff this last time - that photo of the six young TF guys turned up again.

I remember holding it in my hand while standing in the garage.  Tired, dusty and in shock with pace of the move, and those stunning strong faces looks as great now as they did then.  Did I actually throw it away this time?  Only in the unpack will I know for sure.

My instinct said not to throw it away, but my mind was overpowered by ‘reason’ which argued, “it’s just a photo of five TF soldiers that I’ve been lugging around for years now, what am I holding on to it for?”

If I had only known then – just a couple of weeks ago - what I now know.  It was valuable piece of history.  Maybe it’s there still in container, but my feeling is that it probably did go to the Taupo dump along with most of the rest of my history.

Still, the satisfaction for me is this.  The only reason that story and photo was published in the first place was because I was hoping join the TF at that stage and knew about the deployment from 6 Hau.  Otherwise, no one probably would have picked it up.

Unwittingly, I was writing history – material that maybe used forever more.  I took that photo – my work.  I remember it so clearly.  It was on the front page, right hand side of the Eastern Bay News. 

So really, I was part of recording a significant piece of history and I didn’t even know it. 

Maybe there will be no other person who will believe this.  Only I will ever know the truth.  About how I felt, what that photo meant, and why I've lugged it around all those years.

Today, when they announced our mission and I opened the digital image file and saw who the Victoria Cross medal was awarded to - THAT face.  Instantly, it was the same guy, but the years had added some other character there. 

He’s seen stuff and he’s built a stronger physical frame.  I wondered what it would be like to talk to him.  

3.15ish: We’ve had the media conference and it went smoothly.  Dignified and to the point.

I was lucky enough to shake Corporal Apiata’s hand today and reminded him of that time I took his photo in Whakatane.  After a second or two you could see he remembered that particular event. 

“My mum’s still got that photo,” he said quietly.

His eyes smiled at that recognition.  For me, it was a nice feeling to know we had shared an experience –  brief as it was.

Sometimes you think your work is of no matter or of little consequence in the bigger scheme of things. Never again will I allow myself to think this way. 

Things we do that are every day routine may not be a big deal to us individually, but now all I can think of is this - that photo I took innocently all those years ago now has a value that cannot be quantified.

I was just doing my job – but someone else’s actions has made that photo a piece of history.  Isn’t that amazing?

It only proves that everything we do is important.  We perhaps may never know if our deeds will touch the lives of anyone else. Clearly they do and I was lucky enough to find out this for myself.

Never underestimate the value of your everyday work – no matter who you are or what you do.


Pictured above - Denise Landau's photograph of Cpl Willie Apiata and four fellow TF soldiers taken in Whakatane in 2000.  Image courtesy of the Eastern Bay News.

This page was last reviewed on 23 April 2013, and is current.