Meet our Friday Muse, award-winning landscape photographer Rachel Mataira

7 March 2024
By Amberley Colby

From international tax consultant to internationally-recognised photographer, Rachel Mataira is making waves with her eye for detail.

When FQ last caught up with Rachel Mataira, she had recently quit her job as a tax consultant to pursue a full time career behind the lens. It’s never easy to turn a side hustle into your main hustle, but in spite of the obvious challenges associated with such a career pivot, Mataira hasn’t looked back since. In 2019, the creative won New Zealand Geographic’s prestigious New Zealand Young Photographer of the Year’ award, and while she doesn’t get too hung up on accolades, she’s gone from strength to strength ever since. Primarily known for her images of natural landscapes, Mataira has dabbled in themes like social commentary —gaining particular recognition for her imagery taken during the 2020 lockdowns and Black Lives Matter protests. 

With almost three years having passed since our last interview with the photographer, we thought it was a fitting time to catch up about her creative expeditions around the world, the advice she’d give to aspiring photographers, and what she’s got in the pipeline for 2024.  

In conversation with Rachel Mataira

In 2019, you won the title of ‘New Zealand Young Photographer of the Year’. How did this award change things for you?

It feels like so long ago now! I have always tried to not get too preoccupied with accolades but at the time it served as encouragement to keep going with my creative work. At the time I was working in corporate international tax so it served as a reminder that I do have a creative side within me that deserves to be given my attention.

What is it about documenting nature that inspires you the most? 

There is so much we can learn from the land. I see the relationship between humans and the land as equal partners, if we protect our natural world it will in turn protect us. We are looking after our land just as much as it looks after us. By highlighting and documenting the beauty of the landscapes as I have done for many years I hope to evoke a sense of awe and wonder to encourage the viewer to explore the world themselves or to take a moment to reflect on it. 

Can you shed light on some of the challenges and realities of transitioning from a corporate career to a creative one?

It’s not as easy as some people can make it appear. The great thing about a corporate career for me was the structure, the people and the ability to see the path clearly defined of where you can potentially go longer term. This option is ideal if you are genuinely passionate about your work, looking for a sense of security and wanting stability. I found that working in the corporate world allowed me to adopt a sense of identity that was predefined by my place of work and my job title and it made me feel comfortable in knowing I did not need to explain myself nor was I questioned about the trajectory of my life which I found is a common topic in your twenties. For me, I have always known I have a deeply creative side which would not be utilised to its potential in the career path I was on, and when I started to lean more into that side of myself whilst still remaining in my job, it allowed me to experiment without the pressures of relying on that for work. 

Although it’s also a gift, one of the biggest challenges for me when I decided it would be viable for me to make the transition was the freedom that came with ultimately choosing to pursue a creative career full-time. 

I had to develop my own sense of what structure and stability looked like in my own life without relying on anyone else to help with that which is liberating once you find your rhythm but scary whilst you’re accustomed to corporate structure and are still figuring it out. 

I also found that cash flow management was a big transition for me, when you’re in the creative world you (usually) do not get your monthly pay checks. I’m relatively okay with managing myself in this area, but it was a different way of living that I had to get comfortable with and is something I know many people find challenging. The reality is, I have never once looked back on my decision and I know wholeheartedly that it was right for me. There is no glass ceiling with working for yourself, but there’s no safety net either and I do think it’s important to understand that. 

Art is about translation. What do you want people to feel or take away from your work when they view it?

I believe you don’t see art as it is, you see it as you are. People have reflected back to me that my work serves as a momentary pause to reminisce on times they have spent at the locations I have photographed, others say it evokes certain emotions within them ranging from relief from a busy life or offer a moment of contemplation on the world outside of their daily routine. As long as it serves as a moment of pausing for the viewer my work is done.

In what ways has your travels, international and throughout Aotearoa, influenced your work? 

A lot of my older work has been informed by simply observing the beauty of a range of landscapes from an artistic perspective –  focusing on form, lighting, shadows, scale, lines and shapes. But as I have travelled more and connected with local people in different areas, I have felt a desire to take this a step further and incorporate more storytelling into my work. I believe the stories of our landscapes need to be preserved and protected. And in another sense, I have always used photography subconsciously as a form of meditation. I find both being in nature and exploring the world around provides a deep sense of stillness and peace, all of my work that has been captured from that place.

Do you have a favourite piece of work that you’ve shot? 

All of my work is personal to me and is a reflection of the life I have lived. It connects me to different phases of my life so I don’t have a favourite.

What advice or wisdom would you give to those looking to follow a similar creative path to you?

Just start. It might be messy, it might be uncomfortable and you might be confused. But starting the process for yourself is the easiest way to figure out if it is something you truly want to pursue. I worked full-time for the first two years of exploring this for myself and I do think it’s important to make sure you are sure before you take the leap. 

Don’t compare yourself to anyone. We all possess qualities and gifts that are completely unique to ourselves. Our gifts resonate with the people who they are meant for and that means they do not have to resonate with everyone. If you are true to yourself in your creative work from the beginning, it may look different to someone else but true creativity cannot be copied and the output of our work should not be compared.

What’s next for you? Personally and professionally?

My work is informed by my personal interests and personal experiences. The most important thing for me is to be creating freely and from a place of true authenticity. At the moment, I am interested in the stories of the land — the need to protect them from the impacts of tourism and climate change as well as finding inspiration in the history of the land and how they have positively impacted people over time. At the moment I am also deeply interested in working with the land as a form of meditation. So somewhere between those interests will be next for me.

Quickfire questions:

My favourite place to travel to… I feel a sense of home in Central Otago and am always inspired by the beauty there. I spent just over a month living in Paris last year and I loved everything about it. 

I would describe my style as… Considered and classic but with a sense of ease. 

This season I’m saving on… I’ve stopped drinking coffee and alcohol so definitely that. We grow food at home and would love to grow more, so definitely savings there too!

Best place for a cocktail… Mudbrick on Waiheke Island.

Last TV show I binged… I’m admittedly not a huge TV watcher but the last show I watched was Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones.

If I had to listen to three songs for the rest of my life it would be… ‘High’ by Lighthouse Family; ‘I Giorni’ by Ludovico Einaudi; ‘Let it be’ by The Beatles. 

The item at the top of my wish list… A sauna for home would be lovely! 

Imagery: supplied.


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