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Artist illuminates flawed beauty

A creative vision of strength, vulnerability and “the beauty of human flaws” has placed a decorated Wairarapa photographer in the running for another national accolade.

Greytown-based Esther Bunning is one of the finalists for the 2023 National Contemporary Art Award – open to “eclectic, bold, and original works from artists at all stages of their careers”.

Bunning is among 43 artists of various mediums – selected from a “record-breaking” 420 entrants – in contention for the $20,000 grand prize. All finalists’ work will be showcased in an exhibition at Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato, opening on July 29.

Bunning’s selected piece was taken from a recent body of work: A series of portraits, in her signature experimental style, paying tribute to women’s courage in adversity.

The project, featuring a “diverse” group of women aged 40-65, is inspired by the Japanese practice of kintsugi – repairing broken pottery using powdered gold or silver. Kintsugi treats the cracks and breakages as an integral part of an object’s history, rather than something to disguise.

Bunning, a winner of multiple New Zealand photography awards and a two-time finalist for the prestigious Parkin Drawing Prize, said she was “thrilled to bits” to be selected – especially on behalf of the women who “showed enormous bravery in allowing [her] into their world”.

“I’ve worked with some amazing women for this project. The woman in my entry shows vulnerability and strength – the image is powerful and unusual in its light and composition, and it was taken in her own home,” Bunning said.

“As a woman and an artist, the concept of kintsugi resonated with me. I love that it’s part of a broader philosophy of embracing the beauty of human flaws and illuminating our imperfections. Kintsugi teaches us that our broken places make us stronger.

“I usually get a little intimidated by art awards outside of the photography world, but being a finalist for the Parkin Drawing Prize has given me confidence in giving things a go. Being selected for an award that is broader than photography shows me I’m on the right path.”

Bunning, a photographer of almost three decades, is best known for her artistic portraiture – using light, texture, and the illusion of movement to create ethereal, luminous images. All her photographic effects, including layering of images in multiple exposure, are done in camera, with minimal use of Photoshop.

She has taken home a string of trophies from the New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography Iris Awards, including Illustrative, Commercial and Creative Photographer of the Year – and the coveted title of Professional Photographer of Year in 2020.

At the 2021 Iris Awards, her photography anthology “The Secret Keeper”, a collaboration with Whanganui artist Catherine Daniels, received a perfect score of 100/100 – the first time this has been awarded in the ceremony’s history.

As a commercial photographer, Bunning usually specialises in family portraits – though she is most passionate about her “community projects”, working with diverse groups of people to explore potentially confronting topics.

As well as her kintsugi anthology, she continues working with Daniels on “The Secret Keeper” project, which delves into the latter’s experience of childhood trauma and parental neglect. Her recently completed project, “Pink”, captured Wairarapa teenagers sharing their experience of bullying, and she is working on a longer-term project, “Solace”, themed around grief.

Her selected entry for last year’s Parking Drawing Prize, “Cerebral Unravel”, was based around dementia and its effect on family and loved ones.

“I do often work with uncomfortable topics. I’m passionate about being an illuminator with my work, and giving people who can’t speak for themselves a visual voice. My kintsugi images are in keeping with this,” Bunning said.

This year’s National Contemporary Art Award will be adjudicated by Melanie Oliver, arts curator at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.

The winners will be announced on July 28.


  1. Congratulations Esther, you really have a big heart coupled to your vision and talent!! Awesome story Erin, you picture with words Esther so well 👍🏾👍🏾

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Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall
Erin Kavanagh-Hall is the editor of the Wairarapa Midweek. She has been a journalist for the past 10 years, and has a keen interest in arts, culture, social issues, and community justice.

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