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‘I don't know if it's the altitude or incredibly fresh air, but you get a buzz flying into Queenstown.’

Gems in this


Explore Playbook

Feature by Exceptional ALIEN

Creativity takes New Zealand–born photographer Derek Henderson across the globe. Yet the tidal pull of his homeland ensures Derek always returns to Aotearoa to top up on inspiration. 

With a natural curiosity for raw beauty and a desire to document his surroundings, Derek has long returned to his home country between time living in France, Munich, London, New York and now Sydney. On home soil, the award-winning photographer takes a break from shoots with titles like Vogue, I-D and Harper’s BAZAAR to extensively capture the landscapes, streetscapes and the people who inhabit them. From almighty mountain scenes on the South Island, to Māori teenagers and the forgotten corners of small towns, Derek’s work is underpinned by a sense of New Zealand whimsy. For our Aotearoa Country Special, we caught up with Derek to chat about creative travel, how New Zealand inspires his creativity, and his favorite travel gems to visit on the South Island.


On where you grew up in New Zealand

I grew up in a small town just outside Hastings in Hawke’s Bay. My Mom and Dad had an orchard, so I spent my life till I was about 12 years old, on an orchard. It wasn’t remote; I don't think there are too many areas in New Zealand that are actually remote. It might seem that way to people, but there's usually a town or a city only an hour's drive away.

On the feeling you get flying into Queenstown

I don't know if it's the altitude or if it’s the incredibly fresh and crisp air, but you get quite a buzz flying into Queenstown. You've got The Remarkables [mountain range] right there, and you're in the center of the mountains. It's impressive. I never get sick of it. If you ever want to impress someone, that's the way to do it; you can’t take a bad photo — it's so beautiful. From Queenstown you have all these environments so close to each other. You're not far from the coast, you're close to the mountains, to the rivers and the lakes. The landscape is extreme, and there are hardly any people there. Even when it's busy, it's not that busy. The landscape looks unpolluted, and for the most part, it's a very safe place to be. Because of all these things, the standard of living is very high. 

On the mindset in New Zealand

I think it's a small-island attitude — that we have to prove we’re just as good as anywhere else. I remember living in Denmark, and they had a similar feeling of needing to prove something to the rest of the world. People want to be recognized as being good at what they do, so I think they try a lot harder. There’s also that ‘do it yourself’ attitude in New Zealand, out of necessity.

Derek Henderson grew up on the North Island of New Zealand, learning the ropes of photography in Auckland (captured, middle) before spending many years traveling throughout Europe, North Africa, America and Australia. But it's always to New Zealand that Derek returns to top up on inspiration. Images courtesy Derek Henderson.

On the creative community in New Zealand

The creative community here is small — everybody knows everybody — and it's competitive. If you were good, it did feel as though you had to go overseas to prove yourself, because the market was bigger. And so, many of us left. It’s a bit different now because of globalization, and with social media. You don't have to be in those major centers, necessarily. I think there's a lot of young creatives now who have international clients, but they work from New Zealand. Someone like architect Rufus Knight has a practice in Auckland, but he has clients from all around the world. I don't think that would have happened 10 to 20 years ago.

'The South Island is refreshing, physically and mentally. It cleans you out. It makes you feel fresh and open, and just relaxes you.'

On the difference between the North and South Islands of New Zealand

People say there is a difference culturally, but I don’t think the country is big enough. It's not like the US where there are 50 states and you could call them different countries. Certainly it’s colder in the South Island and warmer in the North Island. 

On surprising facts about New Zealand

There are no snakes. I mean there is hardly anything that can kill you in New Zealand. It's just idyllic. Growing up in New Zealand, we would just go charging through the bush when we were kids because there was nothing to fear. But now that I live in Australia, sometimes I'll be out on a shoot and I'll start walking through long grass and my assistant will look at me like I am crazy. I still have to check myself.

The remote holiday hideaway of Lake Ōhau in Canterbury on the South Island acts as a gateway for remote hiking, cycling and skiing. It's also an unbeatable canvas for photographers like Derek. Images courtesy Derek Henderson.

On your start in photography

I had no real interest in art at school. I come from a working-class family, so there were no expectations to head to university. I was probably going to be a plumber or a sparky [electrician], or builder. Most of my friends worked at the abattoirs or in horticulture. But I left Hawke's Bay and did a cadetship at a bank. I spent two days a week at university studying commerce and worked the other three days at the bank. I did that for a year and a half and realized it wasn't my thing. One of the clients at the bank was a wedding photographer and he was quite a flamboyant character. He also made a lot of money — I could see how much he made. I got to know him and started taking pictures on the weekend as one of his freelance photographers. He taught me how to shoot. 

'For the soul, for anyone, travel is part of the human condition. We are inquisitive. We want to go somewhere we haven't been before, out of curiosity.'

On connecting with people from behind the camera

With all skills, but especially creative skills, communication is the key. If you can't communicate with the people you’re working with, it's not going to work. You learn to work with people because part of your job is to create a situation where they have a good time and feel comfortable. 

On your global adventure

I came to Australia in 1986 and lived here for about a year. And then I was employed as a stills photographer on a few films in New Zealand, and the producer wanted me to do the stills on this film in France. So, in 1987 I went over to France. It was an amazing commission to work on this film for six months. After that I didn’t want to come back to New Zealand just yet, so I lived in London for a few years. Then I came back to Australia, and then I lived in the States  in LA and New York  and then Copenhagen and Munich. Just following my career and going to different places.

As well as the arresting landscapes, Derek has also spent time capturing the people of New Zealand, including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and the faces of Māori teenagers. Images courtesy Derek Henderson.

On travel inspiring your creativity

For the soul, for anyone, travel is part of the human condition. We were hunter-gatherers, and I think that mentality has stayed with us. We are inquisitive. We want to go somewhere we haven't been before, out of curiosity. For me, creatively, seeing new cultures and being somewhere I've never laid eyes on before is very stimulating. I can't help myself. I'll go anywhere.

'There's a place called Nevis Valley. The landscape is beautiful, serene and quiet and there's no one there. I've photographed it quite a bit and I've got a series based there called Fool’s Gold.'

On your most memorable travel photography commissions

I've done a couple of shoots for a French magazine called Mastermind. They commissioned me to go to Japan to photograph the places that inspired Hayao Miyazaki, the famous Japanese animator and master storyteller who founded Studio Ghibli. He's like the Walt Disney of Japan. He basically gave me a piece of paper that listed the places around the country that inspired him to write these classic animated films, and they ranged from places up north, right down to Yakushima Island in the south. That was an amazing commission. The culture in Japan is so different to our own, and I was going to places where I was the only non-Japanese person there. I found immersing myself in other cultures so inspiring.

On your favorite location to shoot in the South Island

There's a place called Nevis Valley. It’s off State Highway 6 out of Queenstown. You need a 4WD to get into the valley. Only about three families live there now. There are a few miners’ huts, as it was a big gold mining area, but it's barren now. The landscape is beautiful, serene and quiet, and there's no one there. I love going for a day trip. I've photographed that quite a bit and I've got a series called Fool’s Gold that's based around the valley and looking for gold in New Zealand. There are lots of tracks in and out of the gold mine. I like going up those tracks and having a look around and photographing them.

Although it takes a sturdy set of wheels (read 4WD) and 30-plus river crossings to access, Nevis Valley remains as one of Derek's most loved places to photograph. Derek says this isolated landscape is one of his favorite day trips from Queenstown. Images courtesy Derek Henderson.

On where to stay when visiting

I always stay at the Sherwood; it's a hotel in Queenstown. All the food’s organic, sourced locally, or they grow it in their garden. There's a nice bar, they have bands that play, and the motel looks out over Lake Wakatipu [Whakatipu Wai-māori]. The vibe is very relaxed, and a lot of creative people stay there. A lot of production companies use it when they're shooting films or commercials. It’s a creative hub in Queenstown. 

On a day trip out of Queenstown

Go for a drive to the top of the lake towards Glenorchy. That's a small village that leads you into a place called Paradise, which is an area up by the Dart River [Te Awa Whakatipu] and the start of the Routeburn Track. You can park and walk as far into it as you want — 5km, 10km, 20km along a river, through beech forest. It's the most beautiful scenery you're going to experience.

'There aren’t many tourists in Central Otago, it's kind of the undiscovered part of the South Island that I recommend people visit.'

On places you like to return to

I like going back to places I don't feel I captured well — I'm always thinking maybe I can do better. Nevis Valley is one. I also like heading out towards the glacial Blue Pools, which is past Lake Wānaka; you can swim and walk and then stay in these A-frame cabins at Wonderland Makarora Lodge. I like going to Danseys Pass, which is just out of a small town in Central Otago. You can go for a drive and there's hardly anybody there. There’s a great place to stay called Danseys Pass Hotel; it's an old miners’ pub that has been there for hundreds of years. I like going to Poolburn Dam, which is a drive out of a small one-strip town called Ophir. There’s another great place to stay there called Pitches Store. There aren’t many tourists in Central Otago; it's kind of the undiscovered part of the South Island that I recommend people visit.

On skiing in Central Otago

In Lake Ōhau, there's a ski lodge right on the lake called Lake Ōhau Lodge. It's got about 70 rooms. It's a big, old-school lodge, straight out of the 1970s. It's like The Shining. If you stay at the lodge in the ski season, you can ski at the private ski field. There's a chalet up the top, with a fireplace going and you can get a meal there. It’s a real ski-club sort of vibe. I believe some European ski teams, like the Italians and the French, go there in their off-season to train — that's how good the skiing is.

Located in Central Otago, Queenstown is a mecca for adventure sports. It's also a great base to explore the surrounding glaciers, mountains and lakes at a slower pace. Images courtesy Derek Henderson.

On your must-do experience in all of New Zealand

My must-do experience would be to go on one of the many walks. My favourites are Routeburn, Milford, Lake Waikaremoana, Hollyford and the Tongariro. Some of these can be done in a day, others can take up to a week. It's the best way to really experience the natural world of Aotearoa.

On what 'manaakitanga' means to you

Manaakitanga, for me, is about respect and kindness in the care of others. For me, part of that respect is to learn as much as I can about Māori culture in Aotearoa.

On what makes New Zealand so special

New Zealand is special to me because of the connection I have with the land and the people of Aotearoa.

On a window or aisle seat

I'm an aisle person, only because I don’t like having to climb over other people. But it's a compromise because I want to look out the window too. 

On the South Island in one word


The South Island is refreshing, physically and mentally. It cleans you out. It makes you feel fresh and open, and just relaxes you. If you don't enjoy yourself in New Zealand, I don't think there's many places you're going to have a good time.


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