Tarpon Springs photographer Beeba Christopoulos-Lekkas wants to spread the word on the beauty, traditions and history of the place where she was born and raised — Tarpon Springs. Through the lens of her camera, she hopes to introduce the public to Greek life off the Sponge Docks, the part many visitors never see.
A new exhibit featuring dozens of her photos recently opened at the Tarpon Springs Cultural Center and runs through April 20. The Greek community comes to life in vivid photos mounted on foam boards.
In one scene, women sit at a long wooden table facing piles of large grape leaves they will stuff with a combination of meat and rice. They appear deeply engaged in the task.
In another, Katerina Zaronicas is baking prosforo, the communion bread she bakes each Saturday for the Sunday service at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. She gazes intensely at the task before her, almost as if in a trance.
"I want to capture emotion," the photographer said. "I try to take pictures that will evoke emotion in the viewer and capture emotion in the subject."
Zaronicas works in an ambience that helps her appreciate the holiness of her task. Incense emits a sweet scent nearby, liturgical music is playing and Zaronicas gently whispers her prayers. The scene is about more than just baking bread.
"My strength," Lekkas said, "is in getting people to be sensitive to what they are seeing."
In another photo, young men look up at the priest as they prepare to dive for the cross during the city's Epiphany celebration. Each face conveys a hunger to get into the water and be the lucky man who grasps the cross.
The photo is one of many on the second floor of the center, where other scenes from the Epiphany celebration are featured. One shows young divers bowing before the Greek Orthodox archbishop before the cross is thrown; another focuses on the dive itself.
Tina Bucuvalas, curator of art and historical resources for Tarpon Springs, organized the exhibit.
"I wanted an inside look at Greek life that an outside photographer couldn't do as well as Beeba," she said. "These photos exhibit the closeness of someone who grew up here and the distance of a professional photographer."
Front and center is the photo that moved Bucuvalas the most: a tiny infant nestled in the bowl of a giant sponge. The infant lies on a soft blanket and appears to be sleeping peacefully. The child is the son and grandson of sponge divers, both of whom appear beside a thick pile of sponges in another photo.
Lekkas, 41, is seeing her childhood with new eyes.
"I took this community for granted growing up and didn't stop to take a look at the things around me," she said.
After a 10-year stay in Greece, during which she married and had two children, the young photographer returned with her family to Tarpon Springs in 2007 and took a deeper look at what she had left behind.
"It wasn't until I came back that I saw it all — the majesty of our liturgical life, the intricacy of our costume, the sounds of our music," she said.
Lekkas also came to appreciate the smells of the community: the incense burning, the communion bread baking — even the smell of a sponge-filled warehouse. Her maternal grandfather, Michael Billiris, started the St. Nicholas sponge diving exhibition at the City's Sponge Docks, a display still owned by her family.
Armed with degrees in photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology and in fine arts from the University of Miami, along with years of teaching photography in Greece, Lekkas and her husband, Kostas, opened a home-based photography studio, Lekkas Photography and Videos, shortly after their arrival.
They are noted for their portraits of brides as well as for scenes of baptisms, communions and other special events. Kostas Lekkas does the videography. His wife takes the photos. The new business did well from the start, enabling Lekkas to concentrate more on personal photography.
Part of her new emphasis, she said, is documenting the older generation that is slowly passing. But there are other changes. The sponge industry is dying, she said, and small businesses are struggling.
"I'd like to do a portrait series of those that are left who have contributed significantly to the community," she said.
Despite the losses, much remains behind, all subject to Lekkas' lens.
"These photographs are as much about capturing what is left as they are a call to look at what we had," she said. "We need to plant more seeds so that we can always say there's no place like Tarpon Springs. There is no place like home."