42 years, 413 dead bodies: Rotorua police photographer Wayne Hendrikse retires

More than 40 years since joining the Rotorua Police, forensic photographer Wayne Hendrikse is hanging up his camera. From fatal car crashes to arson attacks, he has seen and photographed it all. Rotorua Daily Post reporter David Beck caught up with him to hear about his illustrious career. WARNING: CONTAINS GRAPHIC CONTENT.

For decades, Rotorua’s Wayne Hendrikse has been a man you do not want to be photographed by.

As a forensic photographer for the Rotorua Police, if Hendrikse had you in his lens there was a good chance it was because you were dead.

“I’ve always said people are dying to see me,” he jokes.

It’s the sort of dark humour that acts as a coping mechanism when your job means you have a front row seat to real-life horror scenes every day.

Now, 42 years after joining the police, 21 of which were as a forensic photographer, Hendrikse has retired.

"School was a waste of time for me"

As a student at Mount Maunganui College in the 1970s, Hendrikse picked up a booklet about careers with New Zealand Police.

“I used to read that all the time,” he said.

“I thought ‘yeah, I want to do that’. I still have that pamphlet. I finished my sixth-form year but realised school was a waste of time for me.”

At 16, he left school and worked as a general hand at the Big Game Fishing Club on Mayor Island, off the coast of Tauranga.

After a year he applied to join the police force and on January 24, 1979, he moved to Trentham, where he trained for 12 months.

“After that, you give your choice of four centres you want to work in and hope to get your first choice. I got my second choice which was Rotorua, my first being Tauranga obviously because that was home, and I’ve been here ever since.”

In terms of living in Rotorua, it was far from love at first sight for Hendrikse.

“For the first two years I was back home to Mount Maunganui every day off I had,” he said.

“I tried to get a welfare transfer back over there, I didn’t want to be there. But I met my wife, we got married and built a house and I’ve never looked back. I don’t have plans to move. Ever.”

"You had your baton, your handcuffs and your wit"

Hendrikse’s police career started on the front line as a constable, which made for some interesting work stories.

“Policing in the 80s was so different to today,” he said.

“You had your baton, handcuffs and your wit, that was it. Now you have an arsenal – a phone with maps and photos, there’s not too many surprises. We were going into places blind. We certainly had plenty of close calls.”

One memorable moment came during a four-year period relieving in Murupara when Hendrikse and his partner stumbled across a dangerous man on the run.

“They had helicopters with heat-sensing gear trying to find him. We ended up with three armed offender squads out searching for him. The highway was shut down for the night.

“The next morning he was sighted on the road near Minginui. We were told to go to the nearest house and set up an observation point to keep an eye out for him.

“We drove up to the house which belonged to the guy who owned the local garage, we thought there was nobody home because he was at work but my partner Peter Clarke went to knock on the door and heard movement inside.

“As far as we were concerned, the offender was still 40-50km away with three armed offenders squads between us.”

Clarke pushed the door open to find the offender pointing a sawn-off shotgun in his face.

“I grabbed the rifle from the car and ran around the corner,” Hendrikse said.

“I ran in, threw the rifle at Pete and jumped on the guy. I ended up having a big scrap with him and overpowering him. I’ll never forget, we were handcuffing him to the bull bar of the truck out front just as the first armed offenders’ squad showed up.

“The next morning I woke up and the whole inside of my mouth was raw. Then I remembered it was from me trying to bite this guy’s hand to get it off my face.”

Clarke received a Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct and Hendrikse received a Gold Merit Award for their efforts that day.

Behind the lens

When Hendrikse finished working on the front line, he moved into the control centre at Rotorua Police.

When communication centres started opening up, Hendrikse said “the writing was on the wall” that his job would not be around much longer.

He started relieving on the photography team in 1994 and in 1999 became a full-time forensic photographer for Rotorua Police.

Since then, he has personally photographed 413 dead bodies.

“You saw countless other bodies.

“My mum was a photography buff so as kids we used to do that with Mum and print out our own photos. It wasn’t a passion for me, it was just something I did.

“It’s never been a hobby but it wasn’t completely foreign. There are a few opportunities in the police to branch out after being on the front line and that was the one I chose.”

Once he got into the photography job he loved it.

“There’s a lot of freedom there and you’re always doing something different. There were a hell of a lot of fatal crashes back then, though, so when you were on-call you’d get called out all the time.

“You get to know all the fire crews, all the tow truck drivers because you see them so often. My kids, when they used to get asked what their dad does, they’d say ‘Oh my dad photographs dead people’. That was their perception of what I did and it was a big part.

“Basically I don’t photograph you unless you’re dead or badly injured.”

He said he had several ways to ensure the dark nature of his job did not affect his everyday life, including mandatory counselling sessions.

“The black humour keeps everyone sane. The more you talk to people about things, the more you realise it’s not just you that has those thoughts and feelings, the easier it is.

“The police trauma policy makes it compulsory for forensic photographers to see a psychologist every three months, so I’ve been going to Helen Holmberg for 22 years now. Her prompting and her support has really helped.

“I also go to a cafe for morning tea every single day, whether I’m at work or at home. That’s just my one little vice, my one little thing that means the world is normal and everything is okay. I intend to keep doing that.”

The stench of rotting bodies

In 2004, Hendrikse was sent to Phuket in Thailand to help in the aftermath of the Boxing Day tsunami which killed more than 200,000 people.

He knew before he left what he was in for and in some respects, there were few surprises. But hearing about 37C heat and the stench of rotting bodies and actually being there were two different things.

“We worked with the Germans, the Italians, the French, the Australians. It was horrible work we were doing but the camaraderie was amazing, there was a lot of black humour but we were there doing a really important job.

“Weeks after the tsunami we were still pulling the bodies out and trying to identify them.”

They worked 12-hour days for the first week and a half. There was a fingerprinting team that washed each decomposing hand, soaked it in boiling water for 10 seconds and rubbed it with isopropyl alcohol.

Hendrikse said it was particularly easy to discover the names of dead Thais, as Thailand required anyone aged over 15 to have their fingerprints on their national identification cards.

Most bodies were so badly decomposed, they had no hair on their heads and little body hair. Most did not have any eyes, and some bones and teeth were removed to test for DNA.

While the work was disgusting, the workers did their best to be positive, he said.

The next phase of life

Hendrikse said while he is retiring from the police, he would still have plenty to do.

“I’m really going from three jobs to two,” he said.

“For the last 13 years, I’ve worked for Event Promotions, on the Tough Guy Challenges and running events. I also drive the shuttle bus for Mountain Bike Rotorua so I’ll be doing a lot more of that.

“Proper retirement is probably a wee while away yet.”

He said the thing he would miss most about being in the police force was the camaraderie.

“I said to the guys, in my farewell speech, that I’ve done my bit and it’s time to step aside. None of us knows how long we’re going to live for, you only get one chance at life – I’ve seen 413 people who would attest to that.”

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