Rena Effendi © Maria Ionova-Gribina

© Maria Ionova-Gribina

“In the media, you see events, and events have a tendency to be forgotten. You kind of look, and you forget, and I think there’s a lot more staying power if you lay down a gallery of faces.”

And staying power is what Rena Effendi achieves through a thoughtful, reflective and deliberate approach to photography, shunning the immediate gratification of the digital camera to shoot film, and in doing so, telling enduring stories from the shadows

Rena is a fellow National Geographic Creative photographer born in Baku, Azerbaijan. She grew up in the USSR, witnessing her country’s path to independence—one marred by war, political instability, and economic collapse. From the outset, Effendi focused her photography on issues of conflict, social justice, and the oil industry’s effect on people and the environment. From 2002 to 2008, Effendi followed a 1,700-kilometer pipeline through Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey documenting the impact this multibillion-dollar project had on impoverished farmers, fishermen, and other citizens. This six-year journey became her first book Pipe Dreams: A Chronicle of Lives Along the Pipeline, published in 2009. The project received numerous awards, including a Getty Images Editorial grant, a Fifty Crows International Fund Award, a Magnum Foundation Caucasus Photographer Award, and a Mario Giacomelli Memorial Fund Award. In 2012, Effendi published her second monograph “Liquid Land”, where her images of Baku are paired with photographs of perished butterflies hunted by her father, a Soviet entomologist, who collected more than 30,000 butterflies in Soviet Union. “Liquid Land” punctuates the theme of fragility and environmental decay of her native city.

Over the past 10 years, Effendi has covered stories in the post-Soviet region, as well as in Turkey and Iran, including the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict, women victims of heroin and sex trafficking in Kyrgyzstan, and the hidden lives of youth in Tehran. In 2011, she received the Prince Claus Fund Award for Cultural Development and moved to Cairo. In 2012, Effendi was short-listed for the Prix-Pictet Global Award for Photography and Sustainability, for her series documenting life of the survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Effendi’s involvement with World Press Photo goes back to 2005, when she was a participant in the Joop Swart Masterclass. In 2012, she was a selector for, and later contributor to the organization’s Reporting Change project. In 2014 Rena Effendi won 2nd and 3rd places in Observed Portrait Stories and Observed Potrait Singles categories of the World Press Photo Contest.

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SELECT QUOTES FROM PODCAST

On guilt

“Sometimes I feel guilty. I mean, I realize that I shouldn’t, but there’s always this moment where you’re in a place and there’s a lot of despair in that place – the people, the way they live, and the circumstances in which they’ve found themselves are not good. Then you realize you’re going to walk away from there, and you will be fine and then they’re still there.”

“There’s this part of me which thinks in a way I prey upon the misery. That’s the nature of this job unfortunately. It’s the flip side in a way, because we’re paid for it. At the same time, there is no harm in it. By being there I’m not doing something bad for the people. I’m not harming the people.”

“I would not walk away from the stories just because I’m not strong enough. I think these are important stories. They need to be told.”

“When you look at a photograph that’s sad or horrific or when you look at photograph that’s full of light and happy, they all belong, they all have a right to be.”

On self doubt

“Every story, there’s always this self-doubt, “Oh my God.” I arrived in Mumbai that first day. It was pure anxiety. I was really worried. Then, you know what? The magic happens when you take the camera in your hands and you start working. Then all the stress, all anxiety, everything, it’s like meditation. Everything goes away. You’re so focused on the pictures that you can’t physically think about … Mentally, there’s no mental space to think about anything else. That is, there’s no mental space for anxiety. You can’t have it.”

“I compare it to meditation because it’s hyper focus. The way you see things when you are photographing is very different, and it’s much more concentrated focus than when you’re just walking around. You’re in a different state of being completely.”

On storytelling

“I think it’s important to go in with some kind of structure in your head of what, how you want to tell the story. Not necessarily the shots but what feelings you want to convey, what is the flow in a way, and what elements would make it into a narrative? What elements do you need to build a narrative?”

On Rena’s approach to photography

“With film I wait a lot in between, I don’t shoot. I wait and I observe, and it’s much more focused. That’s the main difference for me, the main difference in digital.”

“In the media, you see events, and events have a tendency to be forgotten. You kind of look, and you forget, and I think there’s a lot more staying power if you lay down a gallery of faces.”

“I don’t think that the gear gets between me and the subject. I think when we have a tiny camera, we are already an outsider and the subject is already looking at us like we’re space aliens. It doesn’t matter what you have in your hands, a phone or a crazy looking camera.”

On photography as a tool for change

“I try to keep an even bar of my expectation and not be too romantic about it. [Change as a result of my photographs] is not something I can predict or guarantee.”

“Social change is very important but I think also information is very important. Informing the public about these things, about these issues, about these places, is as important.”

Pete Muller profile shot copy“I never think I’ve got the story. Ever. It’s almost ridiculous. I put myself through the wringer” says the ever humble, ever dedicated Pete Muller. Muller is a contributing photographer to The New York Times and The Washington Post, and is currently working on his third story for National Geographic Magazine. Since 2005 he has been working to document the individual consequences of war, poverty and social unrest. Through a combination of photography, text, audio and video recordings, he aims to illustrate broader issues through individual stories. He creates images and material that demand consideration for the lives of those depicted, driven by the belief that intimate, sensitive photographs leave indelible marks on the conscience and actively oppose the sterilization of human suffering. In 2011 Pete was named TIME Magazine’s Wire photographer of the year for his contributions to the Associated Press from Sudan and Central Africa. Visit Pete’s website and follow him on instagram below.

 

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SELECT QUOTES FROM THIS EPISODE:

On photography and the role of art

“Photography is a relatively simple medium in its technical elements. Therefore it has to mean that what’s driving the photography is something bigger than just the photography. I love the visual elements of photography. I love the artistic components of photography. But to me it’s got to be part of a conversation.”

“It might be beautiful to look at, but your staying power comes from your critical thinking. What are you helping to explain or explore or understand through photography?”

“The role of art is to connect us and let us know that we are not alone… You have to give a lot of yourself. And that’s where connection happens. That’s where trust happens. And that’s where vulnerability happens.”

On self doubt

“I never think I’ve got the story. Ever. It’s almost ridiculous. I put myself through the wringer.”

Advice for younger photographers

“I would advise younger photographers to put your head down and think about what you are shooting and why. Think about how you can add to the conversation. Think about how to contextualize your work in broader conversations that are unfolding. Try to make yourselves relevant by contextualizing yourself appropriately and situating yourself in discourse that’s interesting and important beyond photography.”

On being asked to shoot the ebola story for National Geographic Magazine

PM: “When I got the chance to shoot the ebola story, I was SO scared. SO nervous. I was a ball of nerves.” RM: “Did you have to sit on it, think about it, do a little research before you agreed?” PM: “Well I accepted it right away. There was no way I wasn’t going to do it.”

Other Links

Peter van Agtmael has been a mentor and source of inspiration for Pete – check out his work here.