Ans Westra was born in 1936 in the small city of Leiden in southern Holland. When she was a teenager she visited the legendary Family of Man photography exhibition when it was staged in Amsterdam as part of a world tour. Inspired by what she saw, she started saving every guilder she could until she had enough money to purchase a camera. Unusually for the time, she chose to invest in a high-quality Rolleiflex medium-format camera rather than a ‘normal’ 35mm camera that most novices would have opted for and she continued to use this camera for most of her career.
In 1957 she joined the wave of Dutch emigres who were coming to New Zealand as part of an assisted passage scheme supported by the NZ Government. She briefly lived in Auckland where her father had moved to some years earlier but after several months she shifted to Wellington with the thought that it would only be a temporary stay before she returned to her native Holland.
However, she quickly settled into her adopted city where she joined the Wellington Camera Club and found employment with the Rembrandt Photography Studios then located at 211 Cuba Street.
By now her interest in photography had become a passion and she began to document New Zealand life in a manner rarely seen in that era. She found particular inspiration within Māori communities which until then had been largely ignored by contemporary photographers and she joined the pan-tribal Ngāti Pōneke cultural club.
This interest led to her images first appearing in print in New Zealand when her work was used in several issues of Te Ao Hou, a quarterly magazine published by the Department of Māori Affairs. Further commissions followed from the Department of Education who used her photographs in a variety of publications including the NZ School Journal.