Jim Siers with his wife Judy and younger daughter Nina in 1984
by Lindsay Shelton
A pioneering Wellington photographer and writer has died in Fiji. Jim Siers was responsible for thirty books, almost all of them published by Millwood Press which he ran with his wife Judy. As well as his books, he leaves a legacy of thousands of colour images from 30 years travel in the South Pacific.
He was known as Junior when I met him. We were cadet reporters, teenagers starting our working lives on the Dominion newspaper. The women we were to marry both worked in advertising. They were friends before they met us. Then there were children. Jim and Judy had three. Vivien and I had two. The children played together. I have memories of sunny gardens, parents watching while the kids played.
Jim moved from newspapers to advertising and then to television and, later, life as a free-lancer. He bought his first camera in Fiji in 1962. As the sixties continued, he made the decision to focus on writing books, illustrated with his own photographs.
His first two books were published by A H and A W Reed – Polynesia in Colour in 1968 and then Fiji in Colour in 1969, with a second expanded edition two years later.
Soon after, Jim and Judy established their own publishing company, Millwood Press, which at first they ran from their home in Ngaio. One of its first books was Jim’s Hawaii and Polynesia, published in 1973. The same year, he flew to New York in search of an American publishing deal. It seemed an amazingly bold thing to do. He succeeded, and an American edition was published by Doubleday. And separately, his Hawaii was published by Harper and Row.
When Millwood published Jim’s New Zealand (co-written with Keith Aberdein) in the same busy year, it was his eighth photographic book and his first entirely about this country. Two years later, The New Zealanders (in which Jim’s photos were accompanied by essays by Jim Henderson, John Rangihau, Dave Simmons and Roger Green) marked a new level of sophistication for New Zealand publishing, with design and typography and colour reproduction using the newest technology.
His New Zealand Dramatic Landscape was published in 1979 and reprinted in 1981 and 1983. He followed it with New Zealand Incredible Landscape. Both books won Tourism Design Awards.
Jim’s Taratai A Pacific Adventure in 1977 described his incredible 1500-mile voyage from the Gilbert Islands to Fiji in a 76ft canoe, which re-established an ancient sea link between the two island groups. He lived in the Gilberts for five months while the canoe was built. Then he planned a second voyage from Fiji in a smaller canoe. The Taratai 11 voyage ended in near disaster when the canoe was wrecked by a big wave, and the seven occupants, including Jim and his 10-year-old son Conrad, drifted for two weeks in an inflatable life-raft before they were rescued by a Chilean vessel. He described this adventure in a second Taratai book.
Introducing The New Zealanders, Jim had written:
It seems ironic that my Polish ancestry is now less annoying to New Zealanders than the fresh accent of a newly arrived Englishman. The word ‘foreigner’ no longer carried with it the abrasive slur it did when I first when to school here.
When we were young journalists together, he never talked about his origins or about the horrors of his early life, though we all knew that his real name was Zybigniew Sierpinski and that he’d been born in Poland. At the start of World War 11, when he was 4, he and his family had been forcibly deported by the Soviets, with thousands of other Poles, to labour camps in Siberia. The Polish prisoners were freed when Nazi Germany attacked Russia, and the family (without his mother, who had died in the labour camp) trekked to southern Russia and eventually found refuge in Persia. In 1944 Jim and his brother were among 744 Polish orphans brought to New Zealand as refugees. Their father found them in 1946 and arranged for their schooling at St Pat’s in Silverstream.
Towards the end of his father’s life, Jim acknowledged his father’s prowess as a fishing guide by co-writing a book with him about trout fishing in Taupo. His father was proud of the book, and proud of his son’s achievements. As well as his 30 books, Jim had also recorded indigenous music and made documentary films, including Vikings of the Sunrise about his canoe voyages.
By 1990, Jim had decided to live in Fiji. He left without any fanfare, and most of us took some time to realise he was no longer in Wellington. When I met him for the last time at a reunion of television staff a few years ago, he spoke about his love of Fiji – its climate, its people, its cultural diversity, and its myriad of islands. At the reunion he was showing the first signs of the Parkinsons disease that was to lead to his death last month.
Jim is survived by his New Zealand family, his wife Judy and children Conrad, Sophie and Nina; his son Baraniko from Kiribati, his Fijian children, Melika, Allanah and Kazimiercz; and five grandchildren.
The books of Jim Siers
Polynesia In Colour – first edition
Polynesia In Colour – second edition
Hawaii and Polynesia In Colour
Fiji in Colour – first edition
Fiji in Colour – second edition
Samoa in Colour
Hawaii in Colour
Polynesia and Hawaii in Colour
Tahiti in Colour (also a French language edition)
Papua New Guinea
Taratai a Pacific Adventure
Taratai a continuing adventure
Blue Lagoon Cruises
The New Zealanders
Wellington – first edition
Wellington – second edition
New Zealand Dramatic Landscape
New Zealand Incredible Landscape
Two Fiji books published in Fiji.
Taupo Fishing Guide, co-authored with his father.