Visual artist and photographer Michael Christofas unveiled the online component of his latest project ‘Persona’ last month, in collaboration with writer Gabriel Holmes and the Australian National Veterans Arts Museum (ANVAM).
It’s the second of three elements comprising the project, which debuted as an exhibition in March at the invitation of the Victorian Minister for Veterans Shaun Leane, held in the Queens Hall of Victoria’s Parliament House.
The exhibition was the first held in Parliament following the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘Persona’, which was the recipient of a grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs, provides an intimate look into the lives and work of contemporary defence force veteran artists.
Melbourne-born Christofas has been working as a freelance photographer in Australia and abroad for more than a decade. The final element of his latest project is a print publication arriving around February. It is the culmination of work which began in 2017.
“It started when I visited an exhibition hosted by ANVAM showcasing the work of veteran artists and my curiosity got the better of me,” he told Neos Kosmos.
ANVAM is a veteran-led charity focussed on promoting the wellbeing of Australia’s veteran community through arts engagement programs, projects and collaborations.
“I wanted to know more about the people behind the exhibited works, this is where Tanja Johnston from ANVAM and myself came up with the concept for this series.”
Michael says that while it started off “very ad-hoc” the project gained traction in early 2020 when they received a significant grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“But COVID lockdowns and restrictions had a huge impact on our work, so the timeline had to be extended to the end of this year.”
He says that his decision to pursue the series on veterans boiled down to recognising the sacrifices made by those who have served our country.
“These people have a story that needs to be told. Some of the subjects in this series have had, or still have mental health issues, such as PTSD, as a result of the traumatic experiences they went through while serving their country,” he says.
“Art assists them in managing their mental health. Before this work I had no idea there was a group of people who had served in the defence force and were forging their way through Australia’s creative scene.”
Michael explains that one takeaway from ‘Persona’ is to break down the stereotype of a veteran.
“To a lot of people, a veteran is an older guy marching on Anzac Day. ‘Persona’ challenges that perception.”
Christofas told Neos Kosmos that his Hellenic identity impacted on how he approached the project.
“My Greek identity sees me wanting to embrace community, people and gives me the urge to be a part of something I’m passionate about, naturally I think this comes out with my work,” he says.
“You could describe the portraits I take as ‘Environmental’, capturing images of people in their space, it could have been a studio, at home, in a café, or a park. Basically, somewhere that the subject feels comfortable.”
Capturing the images featured in the project wasn’t just a matter of turning up with a camera and taking their photo.
“It took weeks, months… in some cases it was over a year of communication and meetings before they were comfortable being in front of the camera.”
Michael had one of his works in the Greek Australian Cultural League’s (GACL) ‘Lost Homelands’ exhibition last month.
He’s one of the 42 artists currently listed in the GACL’s ‘Greek Australian Artists Directory’ (GAAD), an initiative by the league aimed at promoting the works and stories of Hellenic artists in the community.
“It is great to be a part of a community of Greek-Australian artists. I connected with Vasy Petros and the GAAD approximately six months ago, and I was honoured to have my piece exhibited in the recent ‘Lost Homelands’ exhibition,” Christofas says.
It’s a tragic historical fact that the needs of veterans, many of whom give the ultimate sacrifice: their lives, have been cast to the wayside too often in the past. Works like ‘Persona’ therefore serve as a pertinent reminder that for many veterans the battle doesn’t end once the fighting is done.
Learn more about the project at www.persona.org.au