A Maori lumber worker talking to a Frenchwoman. Forest de Nieppe, March 1917

Maori forestry and woman.jpg

Description

An official photograph of a Maori forester interacting with a local French woman in March 1917.

Context

This official photograph, from the Ministry of Information collection, is one of few that shows colonial troops having direct interaction with women. We see a Maori forester in conversation with a French woman in the forest in which he was working. The older woman is reminiscent of the maternal figures represented in colonial soldiers’ letters and diaries about their time on the Western Front, quasi mothers who looked after the men billeted with them or who visited their cafes or estaminets. The woman looks up at the soldier, clearly curious about this unfamiliar man, but friendly and open in the conversation. The Maori soldier smiles back at the woman but there is no physical contact and the distance between the two is slightly artificial, though that may be due to the angle from which the picture has been taken. It seems deliberately framed to limit the suggestion of racial mixing and intimacy developing between the two. While the Maori troops were not segregated from the civilian population in France, unlike the South African Native Labour Corps, the non-white men still represented a threat of some kind to the established racial order through their interactions. The encounter is captured within the space of the Maori working environment, rather than the domestic space of these women’s homes or businesses, still within army jurisdiction and so with safe limits and boundaries.