This is a story of hope that begins with heartbreak.On December 21, 1988, Alexia Tsairis, age 20, was one of 35 Syracuse University students whose lives were taken by a terrorist bomb aboard Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Her parents, Dr. Peter Tsairis and Aphrodite Thevos Tsairis, searched their hearts for a way to channel their staggering loss into a force for good. Their quest resulted in the 1991 establishment of the Alexia Foundation for World Peace and Cultural Understanding, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting professional and student photographers that honors their daughter’s dream of connecting the world’s people through documentary photography. “From the beginning, our thoughts always seemed to find their way to Syracuse University,” Aphrodite Thevos Tsairis says. “And Syracuse responded.”
Following the tragedy, she says, the University embraced all the affected families and vowed to memorialize those lost by creating the prestigious Remembrance Scholarships. On a more personal level, the Tsairises approached Alexia’s mentor, Newhouse photography professor David Sutherland, with several ideas. After much brainstorming and discussion, they established the Alexia International Photo Competition. Held annually under the auspices of the Newhouse School, this centerpiece of the Alexia Foundation’s mission seeks photographers whose work provides insight into cultural differences and gives voice to victims of social injustice. Each year, five undergraduate winners—Alexia Scholars—receive tuition and grants in the student competition, and one professional photographer receives a cash grant. “When we established the competition, we were determined to make sure it helped developing journalists do important work,” Tsairis says. “We did not anticipate how enriching and healing it would be for us personally.”
The foundation recently celebrated its 15th anniversary, marking the occasion with a photography exhibition in the lobby of the United Nations building in New York City and the concurrent release of Eyes on the World (Cohber Press, 2006), a commemorative book that highlights selected works by 18 Alexia grant winners. The book represents another collaboration with the Newhouse School: It was designed and produced by 14 seniors in Professor Sherri Taylor’s Graphic Arts Problems course. With the guidance of National Geographic executive editor William Marr and Time magazine photography director and Alexia Foundation board member Michele Stephenson, the students moved the project from concept to print in just four weeks at the start of the spring semester.
The Tsairises unveiled an additional commitment to the University at the March 22 exhibition opening at the UN, when Chancellor Nancy Cantor announced their gift of a $3 million grant to the Newhouse School to endow the Alexia Tsairis Chair in Documentary Photography. Sutherland, who administers the annual competition and collaborated on the book’s production, was named inaugural chair. “This is an honor,” says Sutherland, who considers Alexia Tsairis one of the most promising students he ever encountered, and calls her parents “wonderfully down-to-earth and exceptionally generous people.” As Alexia Chair, Sutherland will teach, research, and promote documentary photography, oversee the foundation’s web site (alexiafoundation.org), and coordinate a speaker’s board of former competition winners. “This is an opportunity to do some really interesting things for photojournalism at Syracuse University, with the Alexia Foundation, and in the photojournalism world as a whole,” he says.
Three SU alumni are among the photographers whose work is featured in the book. Justin Yurkanin ’02 works in Florida for the St. Augustine Record. As a photojournalism student, he won a $9,000 Alexia Foundation scholarship to study at the University’s London Center and a $1,000 grant to capture the visual story of women in war-torn Sudan. Wesley Law ’00, who lives in New York and works in commercial photography and independent films, photographed the cultural struggles of Asian immigrants in London. Ezra O. Shaw ’96 is a freelance photographer in New York City. The book showcases photographs he took as a 1996 Alexia Scholar—a series of portraits of children hospitalized near Chernobyl, the site of a 1986 nuclear power accident.
Also featured in the book is Matt Black, a California native who won the competition as a San Francisco State University history major in 1994 and again as a professional photographer in 2003. “I feel a deep sense of gratitude toward the Alexia Foundation,” says Black, an award-winning photographer whose images of the Black Okies—migrant sharecroppers in rural California—appear in the book. “The grant came to be for a special reason, and it is given for a special purpose. The whole experience makes you feel like part of the family, and it pushes you, too. You feel doubly honored.”
At the conclusion of its successful showing at the UN, the Alexia Foundation exhibition traveled to China for display at the Pingyao International Photography Festival. In coming years, the collection of images will travel the globe, extending the foundation’s mission of achieving peace through cultural understanding—as first envisioned by Alexia Tsairis with her camera. “Almost every picture story that crosses the sights of the Alexia competition judges has a component of hope,” the Tsairises say in the introduction to Eyes on the World. “Hope is a lifeline…After all, it was hope for the future that helped us survive the despair of our loss.”