By Marianna Alepidis
“I love the adventure… I think I always was adventurous being the eldest, because having a strict family, we weren’t allowed to go anywhere, do anything; you always tested your boundaries a little bit,” Effy Alexakis tells The Greek Herald.
The renowned photographer still has that same daring glint in her eye that she had the moment she first stepped out into the world with a camera.
In the late 70s, Alexakis had been studying to become an art teacher. Towards the end of her undergraduate degree, she took up a photography unit and fell in love with the medium. Before long, she was spending a great deal of time in the dark room.
“I think that inspired me to continue and love the camera. I was about 19, 20 years old. When I was learning, it was about shooting technical things; a spoon and an egg on a plate with texture. But I’ve always loved photographing people. I like going to coffee shops and looking at people. So, I think people were the inevitable thing that I wanted to focus on,” she said.
During Alexakis’ postgraduate art studies, she honed her skills and needed a project to work on. Unbeknownst to her at the time, this project had perhaps one of the biggest impacts on her life’s trajectory.
“I focused on my family at that time. I think what changed everything was when my father died in January of ’83,” she said.
Her parents, Maria and Spiros Alexakis ran a fish and chip shop, ‘Nita’s Seafoods’ in Sydney’s south-west. Part of Alexakis’ project at the time focused on their life behind the counter.
“It was a big shock. It just changed our perception of who we were in Australia and what we were doing. There was my mum, alone, with four children. Although I was 25 at the time, my brother was still young, he was about 11. So, mum had a shop to look after and four children,” Alexakis recalled.
From here on out, she would go on a mission to overhaul the Greek Australian stereotypes that had been thrust upon the community.
Alexakis’ name is often in tow with partner and historian, Leonard Janiszewski. They had met when studying (Janiszewski also had his eye on being an art teacher), and became inseparable.
Her plight became his own, and so the two have worked together ever since.
“We’re left on the margins, we’re left on the outside, and I don’t think it’s changed much. I think when you’re young, you’ve got more of a fire in your belly, and you get a bit upset and angry that this is the way things are,” Alexakis explained.
“Someone would talk about a Greek and the easiest thing was someone wearing a foustanella, or ‘let’s go to photograph the milk bar owner.’ We were more than that, but who was going to capture that? And because I have this skill of photography, and Leonard had the skill of writing and history I think we were best placed to do something about it.”
To date they have successfully gone on to publish five books, filled with images and interviews, melded by their passion and tenacity.
“He’s a good historian. He’s good at interviewing people. I sometimes call him Oprah Winfrey, because he gets people to say things that I’m often amazed at. He’s very good at getting people relaxed and talking,” Alexakis said.
The photographer has crossed countless kilometres across land and sea to capture the raw essence of what it truly means to be Greek Australian. The moments captured by her lens have gone on to be deliberately and meticulously curated across many books and exhibitions.
“We were driving around the country and we didn’t know what we’d find, who we’d meet. We did maybe 4,000 kilometres across two trips in that year. We went clockwise from Sydney, Melbourne going all the way to Adelaide and then going up north to Darwin, and then across the country to Queensland and back down again, and then another trip was across the Nullabor to Perth. That was a lot of fun, we were in a little Toyota Corolla… it was an adventure,” Alexakis said.
It’s been an exciting few months for both Alexakis and Janiszewski. In November 2023, the Hellenic Museum in Melbourne unveiled Alexakis’ four-part photography exhibition, Viewfinder: Effy Alexakis. A collection of over 30 of her works spanning her 40-year career is on display in the Contemporary Art Space.
With years spent behind the lens, it is inevitable that her interactions would in turn imprint on her own soul.
“I think we grow a little bit with everyone we meet, because we sit with them, we talk and we chat, and they give you their philosophy,” Alexakis said.
There are instances of these pivotal encounters which draw parallels with present day, and others that celebrate the contributions Greek Australians have made to this sunburnt land.
“There’s one photo, a woman bottle feeding the baby in the cafe; Effie Haldezos from Hay. I rediscovered that one during COVID. I had previously used the photo of her and her two other children. During the lockdowns, I was going through the negatives and I saw one of her feeding a baby and I just found it really sad. I know most of us were feeling very vulnerable during that lockdown period where we felt trapped. I saw that reflected in this woman responsible for the shop, responsible for the baby,” Alexakis explained.
“We’ve also had the two brothers, Jack and Peter Veneris, who had worked together for 50 years. They had retired but came back to have their photo taken because I wanted them in the cafe and they’re sitting at a booth back-to-back. So, they celebrated working together for 50 years in the town of Lockhart at the Blue Bird Cafe.”
In December 2023, the couple launched their fifth book, The Heart of Giving. A project she became “totally obsessed with.”
The series had come about by chance, after Alexakis had given a talk about Greek Australian photography. In the audience was a lady who had been a volunteer for Father Nektarios.
“She said, ‘There’s a wonderful priest in Newtown and he feeds the homeless, and he has a lot of volunteers. I think that would make a great project.’ It took me a while to get the courage to go visit this priest. And once I met him and saw what was going on in this amazing soup kitchen, it became an obsessive project,” Alexakis said.
“From February ‘21 until I got published, I was obsessing over that project and everything was related to that. There were sleepless nights. I’m not trying to objectify people so how do I do it in a way that’s kind, that’s doing justice to this priest’s work. It became all consuming.”
It is apparent that photography is just as much a part of Alexakis’ DNA as any other atom. It is hard to imagine a world where she would have spent more time in a lecture theatre or classroom, rather than across the world with a camera in her hands.
“I’m fairly versatile, I’ve been able to meld both freelance and personal work. When I was working as a university photographer, I got to go to Egypt, and I did that for about 10 years. Every once or twice a year I’d go there to document old Egyptian Kingdom tombs. Whilst I was in Egypt, I discovered the Greeks in Alexandria and some Greeks in Cairo. I was following up my passion in places that I had not really expected to do so,” she said.
“The same thing happened on holidays; we went to Fiji because our daughter was growing up and was sick of driving around the country looking for Greeks. So, one year we said, ‘let’s go to Fiji’ and of course, the first thing that we see driving from the airport is refreshment rooms, and they happen to be based on the Greek Cafe concept. So of course, we had to beg her to go interview these people. You make the most of these other things that happen along the way.”
Viewfinder: Effy Alexakis has been extended and will be on display at the Hellenic Museum until the end of March 2024.