The story of the book Sacred Water
I came to know the "baths" of Gera, in Lesvos, in 1984, from the well known greek painter, Manolis Kalligiannis, who was also the first director of Teriade museum, in Vareia, Lesvos. Manolis was my "mentor" let's say, as he was the person who initiated me into the fine Arts, when I was only 16 years old and very angry against life itself. I left the island to study in Thessaloniki, Business administration!!!, but I always kept contact with him. One day, I saw some paintings in his studio, naked women having a bath in a magical place. I knew nothing about mineral springs on the island, so he took me an afternoon to the gulf of Gera baths. They were abandoned, everyone could get in and have a bath or whatever, but I had an immediate reaction to this light, to the smell, to the steam coming out of the room...It was love at the first sight...I kept on going there, mostly alone, or with friends, every possible hour of the day, or night, especially in winter time. There was a guard there sometimes, but no-one seemed really to care about the place.
I started trying to take pictures, as the light in the room was amazing. It took me years and two Nikon to understand I needed an underwater camera if I wanted to save my equipment from humidity. So I bought Nikons V, the best camera at this time and I kept on shooting in the baths. At this time we used film, I used the very precise Fugji velvia or provia film that could get better the tones of the water and the steam. Years after, I showed my pictures to two dear friends, the painters Evita Frantzola and Alexis Veroukas. They insisted I had to make a book out of them. Back in 1994, they were hardly printing 10 photographic albums per year, and only if you were a well known photographer. I wasn't, but still I wanted to try my luck with Adam edition, where I was working as a free lancer and they used to print catalogues and books for artists. Their reaction was completely disappointing."What are those bleary images that you brought to us? Are you crazy? Nobody will ever look at them. We are a prestigious agency, we don't print this kind of photos". Evita and Alexis stood by my side. They insisted in their opinion and they were trying to persuade me that the pictures were really artistic. So, I asked my father to give me part of my heritage in advance in order to print the book myself. I was going to pay him back. selling the book. Giorgos Maniotis, the well known author accepted to write a text for the book, Evita and Alexis, who at this time was serving the army in Lesvos, chose the pictures and decided the lay out of the book. In spring 1996, at the age of 36, I had i n my hands my first printed book!
And now what? Who was going to sell it, how? I knew no one. Giorgos Maniotis suggested to send books to the newspapers, with a press release and try my luck. In no time, it was late in the afternoon and the phone rang. They asked me, the man said "I am Stavros Psiharis, I want you to write a text for Vima newspaper, for the Sunday edition". I was so surprised that a journalist wanted me to present the book, I called immediately my friends and they asked me if I knew who was the person who called me. I answered no. Well, he was the director of the newspaper and a very big name between the journalists. This is how my book started it's way towards its readers. On the way, more people came in our help, Nikos Chatzigeorgiou and Athina Shina was between them and with them we had the first presentation of the book in Mytilene.
The baths of Lesvos started being known to the people outside of the island because of this book. I was also interviewed by BBC into the Gera baths. Their misfortune or their luck, was to be in the hands of Lesvos municipality. They tried to beautify them by adding lockers from a gym and white tiles like a butcher's shop. But still I could go there, swim nude with the old ladies that were coming after picking the olives in the winter. I remember how they laughed and clean each other telling jokes about their bodies that were sculptured by the years and all the children they had. My soul was purified in those waters, I could find my roots again, connect with the spirit of the island, the spirit of those brave women that allowed themselves the pleasure of bathing all together in the warm water of the pool. I will never forget those precious moments, the relaxed feeling, the happiness.
In 2016, the municipality of Lesvos, decided to get their money back and to "modernise" the place by giving it to private management. Now, the baths are for tourists mostly, that they know nothing about the history of the place and they want their jacuzzi and the pool with see view, drinking their cocktails, dressed with their swimming costumes...I never went to the baths again...I prefer to keep the memory of the light as it was suddenly entering into a room full of steam, the laughters of the old women, their joy, the acceptance of their tortured bodies...The soul of the baths is gone, together with the old ladies that were bathing nude and they were asking me to take pictures of them, to send them to their friend in Australia...Without shame, without fake puritanism.
The picture is from 2board magazine, the free magazine of Athens International Airport. Unfortunately they didn't refer the name of the book, just my name. 21 years after the first edition of my book, almost 30 years since I took the pictures, this feeling I had in the baths, crosses the borders to meet it's new public.