Effie (Euphemia) Baker was one of Australia's first female photographers. She was born in 1880, the eldest of 11 children, and from six years old was raised by her grandparents in the mining town of Ballarat, Victoria. Her grandfather was a pioneer astronomer and worked at the local observatory, where he invented his own telescope.
Effie studied visual arts and had a keen eye for detail, as well as an interest in new technology. By 1898 she was taking, developing and presenting photos to her family in albums. In 1914 she published a booklet, possibly the first of its kind in Australia, of her hand-painted photographs called Australian Wild Flowers, to much acclaim. She also enjoyed watercolour painting and was handy with tools, creating her own Australia-themed dollhouse kit sets for sale.
In the early 1920s she started attending progressive New Thought meetings and learned about a faith called Bahá'í, which had originated in Persia (now Iran) in the 1800s and taught the need for unity based on diversity, including racial and gender equality, as well as tolerance and understanding of different religions. Effie was fascinated and converted to Bahá'í that same week, the first woman in Australia to do so. She started travelling around Australia and New Zealand with other believers, teaching the faith but also trying to regain her health after contracting lead poisoning from licking her paintbrushes to wet them instead of using water.
In 1923 she travelled to Haifa in Palestine to learn more about the faith and was invited to remain as a hostess for a new pilgrim hostel. While there, she was issued a challenge: to use her photography skills to record the fast-disappearing locations of the faith's history, including buildings and holy shrines where the Bahá'í faith originated.
It was the beginning of a personal odyssey; Effie was a white Australian woman travelling alone by car and train through Iraqi and Persian territory, with accommodation ranging from hotels in Tehran to bumping along on a pack mule across the desert in the freezing darkness. She wore a black chador (a hooded cloak) for most of the eight-month journey, partly to conceal her photographic equipment but also to avoid questioning and being arrested as a spy. With no darkroom or running water, and the need to check the quality her images before leaving each location, Effie would develop her photos in the middle of the night. She eventually returned to Haifa with over 1,000 successful prints, and more than 400 were published (you can view the photo credits page of the Bahá’u’lláh website to see some examples).
Effie returned to Australia in 1936, but she was shy and humble by nature so only her closest friends knew her story. She died in the 1960s but her name resurfaced in the 1980s when a national exhibition of Australian women photographers was launched.