The 2023 National Photographic Portrait Prize People’s Choice winner has been announced, with Bruce Agnew‘s KAHA, 2022 being the crowd favourite.
The Melbourne-based photographer’s portrait is of Vicky, a burn victim whose injuries left her in a coma for eight weeks and spent more than half a year in hospital, undergoing more than 15 surgeries.
Bruce, who is from New Zealand, said he was seeking a Maori person with a tā moko tattoo when Vicky contacted him.
‘Vicky sent me a message saying that she hasn’t got a tattoo, that she’s looked at some of my photos and asked if I could come and take a photo of her because she had no photos [of herself] in her house. And no mirrors and all that sort of stuff. And she said, “I’ve been a little bit burnt.”
Bruce isn’t a full-time professional portrait photographer. His portfolio on Instagram is mostly of portraits, live music, and paragliding. He went into the shoot unsure if he was equipped to do Vicky’s story justice.
‘Originally I said that I wouldn’t take the photo, because I’m not really a photographer – I said, “I’m just a guy with a camera”. And then her words were, you know, “just take the effing photo bro”.’
Bruce then suggested scheduling the shoot after an upcoming surgery, when Vicky’s scars would be ‘loosened’. Vicky responded: ‘no, just take the photo now’.
‘So it was lunchtime, we sat outside – the worst possible conditions to take a photo ever. Direct sun, everything. It was just brutal. And I said, “look, we’ll take some photos, I might have to come back”.
Most of the photos turned out rubbish and unusable. But one stood out and Bruce began to edit it.
‘So I phoned Vicky, I said, “it’s not going to be, you know, a glamour shot or anything”. It’s sort of taking on the life of a photo that really shows her warrior spirit. And I shared that with her, and Vicky started crying and said “yeah, keep going with that”.
Bruce says Vicky is a tough woman, who has worked in prisons and currently does social and charity work with troubled teens. She is a tough warrior lady, and that’s why he named the picture KAHA, a word that represents her ‘warrior spirit’.