The search for hope: Azerbaijani photographer Rena Effendi on capturing humanity’s will to survive

12 October 2019

Rena Effendi’s photographs draw attention to things that would otherwise be overlooked, unseen, or — in the case of her series Transylvania: Built on Grass (2012) — disappear without a trace. Nominated for this year’s Prix Pictet, her photographs of Romania’s Maramures region capture the traditions, customs, and daily labours of the communities that have farmed this land for centuries. Yet the bucolic perfection each landscape represents conveys little of their fragility in the face of encroaching industrialisation and globalisation.

This is the second of Effendi’s projects to be shortlisted for the Prix Pictet, a prize which uses photography to draw global attention to sustainability and environmental issues. Her first nomination in 2012 focused on her series Chernobyl: Still Life in the Zone (2010), which documents the lives of women living in Chernobyl’s 30-kilometre exclusion zone.

Effendi was born in Baku, Azerbaijan, and has published two photobooks focusing on the impacts of the oil industry on people’s lives in the region. Pipe Dreams (2009) features photographs taken along the 1,700km Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, while Liquid Land (2013) pairs the environmental decay of Baku with photographs of butterflies collected by her father, a Soviet entomologist. Like many of her projects, both books reveal the everyday hardships triggered by environmental mismanagement, whether accidental or deliberate.

Why did you start taking photographs?

I was always curious about the world around me. As a child, I dreamt of becoming a storyteller. I began taking painting classes, but after a year in a studio learning how to work with oil paint, I became increasingly restless. I wanted to spend more time outside and interacting with people, so I switched to photography. I was instantly drawn to the streets. The camera gave me license to approach strangers, to get into their homes and discover their stories. I spent the first four years of my photographic journey walking around imy neighborhood, documenting the pace of urban change in my own city.

From Transylvania: Built on Grass

“Many of us choose to document bleak realities, but we do so in a way that is more focused on human dignity and our ability to survive”

You’ve covered global stories for an impressive range of publications, from National Geographic, Newsweek and TIME Magazine to Vogue and Marie Claire. Was it always your aim to work on foreign assignments?

I grew up in the Soviet Union at a time when all information about life beyond the border was controlled and censored. In order to travel abroad, my parents had to ask for special permission from the Communist Party and attend an interview with the KGB. Growing up in that kind of prohibitive environment, I became fascinated with the idea of traveling around the world, being free to explore new places, and going beyond the familiar. My first international assignment in 2006 was a cover story on Russia during the G-8 summit. I was sent to St Petersburg by Newsweek to photograph the underbelly of the city, and what was carefully hidden behind Vladimir Putin’s facade of economic prosperity.

How did Transylvania: Built on Grass come about?

The project was commissioned by National Geographic. I went to Transylvania to discover Europe’s last remaining agrarian culture. People lived off their land in a harmonious cycle: feeding their animals with hay that they spent weeks cutting and stacking in summer during the high season. Then in winter, the animals would feed the people. But this culture and sustainable way of life is under threat of extinction, with many young people migrating to Western Europe in search of work. My purpose was to document it before it completely vanishes.

How did you approach trying to capture this in your photographs?

I wanted to show not just the process of haymaking, but many other aspects of daily life. The cultural and agrarian rituals, festivals, holidays, weddings, births, and funerals. I wanted to prove to myself and to the world at large that this unique way of life still persists in spite of threats of globalisation and agricultural industrialisation.

Have you been back since? Have these communities and their traditions survived?

I was there in the summer and autumn of 2012 and visited again in the spring of 2014. There were fewer young people and a couple of the tall, ornate, Maramures gates had been sold off, but people still dressed up in their traditional clothes for church each Sunday, still gathered to play music in the fields outside the village market. Elderly women still boiled fresh vegetables to fatten their pigs for Christmas, and haystacks still peppered the landscape. I would like to return again, but this time in mid-winter, the one season I haven’t experienced yet in Maramures.

Your photobooks about Azerbaijan and the surrounding region explore the impact of the oil industry on both the environment and local communities. What drew you to this topic?

Azerbaijan is where I was born and raised, but it’s also where I embarked on my journey as a photographer. At that time, I was trying to make visual sense of what was going on around me. Oil is a prominent theme in Azerbaijani lives: it has brought about major political and socio-economic changes. I was interested in documenting the human cost of oil. As precious hydrocarbons flowed into pipelines destined for Europe, the promise of wealth was yet to trickle down to the general population. Azerbaijan was in the grips of its own growing pains, transitioning from a former Soviet republic to an independent country, a small player in a game of geopolitical manoeuvring between the interests of the West versus those of Russia and Iran. Unfortunately, Azerbaijan’s corrupt ruling elite made a shortsighted decision to build an economy that depended solely on energy exports. As a social documentary photographer, I explored the story of my country’s awkward transition and the regular people whose hopes and livelihoods were caught up in its great new game.

Why did you make photobooks for these bodies of work?

I collect photography and art books; I have this compulsion to own and horde them. I treat them as art objects. I think a book is a place where you can fully express yourself artistically and creatively. It’s the only way to have full control over how you want to tell a story. An author’s monograph is like a home. They can build and design it the way they want with pictures, words, drawings, textures, colours — it can be highly personal object. Magazines are more like rental apartments, spaces which you can make your own to a degree, but there is always the landlord who will tell you that you can’t knock down a wall or repaint the hallway.

Do you feel you have a more informed or unique perspective while taking photographs in Azerbaijan?

There are pros and cons to being a local photographer. You’re more informed about the place itself, its cultural nuances and undercurrents. On the other hand, foreign photographers can bring a fresh perspective. They can be more curious and have a more daring eye. At the end of the day, it really all depends on the photographer and their ability, rather than their nationality.

How can documentary photography contribute to pressing social issues such as those explored in Liquid Land and Pipe Dreams?

First and foremost, I believe in the power of visual storytelling. When you read about a problem or issue in a written article, you can be informed, you can understand the theory, you can even feel empathy and commiserate. But when you see a picture next to that article, then suddenly that problem has a face. You can look straight into the eye of the problem. In that frozen instant, it strikes you: it stirs you emotionally, it evokes empathy. It’s that complex response which distinguishes us as humans.

The theme of the Prix Pictet this year is hope. At a time of increasing environmental disaster and political extremes, do you feel photography can embody hope?

I think it depends on the approach of each individual photographer. Many of us choose to document bleak realities, but we do so in a way that is more focused on human dignity and our ability to survive — for me that embodies hope. If our work focuses on the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity, it does not matter that the portraits are of people who live in desperate times and dire circumstances. We can still show their power and their will to live.

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