The Five Bells: being LGBT in Australia photobook began as a commissioned work from EWS Design in New York City, who had begun a collaboration with the Arcus Foundation to fund a series of LGBTQIA+ themed books on a global scale. Jenny was the third photographer to take part. After 18 months, working constantly on hundreds of images, the book was published by The New Press (NYC) in 2016.    

As the book’s introduction, written by Fiona Skyring, says “These poetic and deeply personal portraits tell the stories of people in the LGBT community in their many interconnecting roles: as sons and daughters and mothers and lovers, as musicians and artists and workers, as people alone yet part of the human family.”  

The images featured in Five Bells take common and habitual moments of LGBT people; a kiss on the cheek, eating breakfast, holding hands – as something precious, little miracles that must be coveted and held close. 

We wanted to find out more about Jenny Papalexandris’ practice and her series Five Bells, which will be on display at Queertography, as part of Pride Amplified. 

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Jenny Papalexandris

Jenny Papalexandris was always drawn to photography as a means of creative freedom. 

“Originally, I trained as a sculptor for many years. In those days photography was always there to document inspiration from nature and ways of seeing the world. About ten years ago, my studio was out of action, and I purchased a digital camera as a creative outlet. … I found that concepts I needed to explore were somehow more resonant with lens-based work. In some ways, I could experiment as I was not bound to all the conventions of Photography as I came from another discipline. Photography could reflect the image of the world yet still allowed me to reflect my personal vision. It has now become my main mode of expression.” 

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Jenny Papalexandris

Further than this, as a member of the LGBT community herself, Jenny emphasises the critical role the medium plays for her and others. 

“Photography plays a key role in any community that is lacking representation. Its power to communicate through a shared humanity can transcend prejudice and intolerance. When a queer person looks out to the world through the camera, it is a moment of proclaiming their place in the world. The cataloguing of struggle, everyday life and celebration are integral for immersion in the mainstream. …At its heart, it is a deeply political act, it always has been. No other medium can do this like Photography can. It is a mirror and a tool for change.”  

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Jenny Papalexandris

This idea of radical representation seems to underscore the images in Five Bells. Five Bells is at once expansive, in terms of the breadth of stories it tells, and micro-focused, in terms of how intimately small these stories are. 

“My aim from the very beginning was to capture queer people not as ‘other’ not as spectacle, but as part of the diverse humanity we all share. For me, it was part of ‘normalising’ the queer experience to the wider mainstream audience. That meant not only including a chapter on the celebratory aspects of Mardi Gras but also the day-to-day life of my subjects with their families or as individuals negotiating the many challenges and emotions faced in their struggle for integration and acceptance. I tried to depict the joy of belonging and the melancholy of isolation.”  

“This work includes rainbow families, which is the focus of this exhibition. An asylum seeker and rural youth also feature in the book. No one can represent the entirety of a community, and I chose my eight subjects because each had a unique story to tell about their personal experience. In the end, my approach was to delve into the quiet, reflective moments of the queer experience, as you say, ‘the micro focus’ which has the power to symbolise the wider connectedness of all people. It is this intimacy we all share as we try to best live our authentic lives.”   

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Jenny Papalexandris

The two stories on display at the Paddington Reservoir Gardens for Queertography both focus on ‘Rainbow Families’, as Jenny describes; 

“I represented two rainbow families in the photobook Five Bells. Louise Melissa and Natalie and their four children and Bonnie and Zelda and their four children complete with newborn twins.  When I was photographing them, the feeling of respect, energy and joyful mayhem of the young families was palpable. It was an honour for me to represent these moments in their lives. Here, we should return to the question of representation. In the home of both families, all labels are redundant. They are simply a loving family, no more, no less. That is how it should be.”  

Arguably, what makes Jenny’s images so powerful is her masterful use of light and shadow in her black-and-white photography. 

“My preference for monochrome work concerns the aesthetics of the project to set the mood and tone. My work is often low key and high contrast which emphasizes the introspective content. Black-and-white condenses reality, and strips it bare, while colour expands our senses in the world. Technically, I enjoy the process of editing in black-and-white, I can distil from an image what emotion I want to highlight and the others I want to suppress. I am not saying all of this is not possible in colour photography, but for me, it is how I see the world. It is a subjective choice that suits my sensibility.”  

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Jenny Papalexandris

And who inspires Jenny’s thoughtful work?

“There have been many teachers in my career as an artist. I am deeply indebted to them as they have taught me to see clearly, be disciplined, be concise in my expression and show gratitude. Marea Gazzard and Peter Travis were my mentors at art college and taught me to always have integrity towards the work and clarity of vision. In terms of inspiration, I have a deep respect for our historical photographers and theorists who paved the way for us to understand the language of Photography … Josef Koudelka, Trent Parke, William Klein, Alex Majoli, Sally Mann, Antoine D’Agata, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Robert Frank, Saul Leiter and Bill Brandt to name just a few! Theorists like Sontag, Baudrillard, Derrida and Bachelard have all shaped my thinking. Part of the joy of this field is that even though these days everyone is a photographer, I am still curious about why some images strongly impact us. Thank you to Head On for this opportunity to showcase the work which I hope will help to widen our perspective of the queer community.”     

See the Five Bells exhibition here

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Image detail: Gary Ramage