Photo Fund Winner Update: Rena Effendi -Part 2
“Discover a smaller corner and show a bigger picture.”
Here is a look at what Rena Effendi is working on presently, her thoughts on photographing in her own country as well as foreign locations, and insight on recognizing that small stories have a big meaning.
FiftyCrows: What project are you currently working on?
Rena Effendi: I am currently working on putting together a final book publication of the six years of work that I did following a 1700 km oil pipeline from Baku, Azerbaijan, via Tbilisi, Georgia to the port of Ceyhan in Turkey. By following this pipeline as a symbolic route, I was hoping to trace the changes in the lives of people who live along it. What I saw was that this multi-billion dollar pipeline project had a human cost: the cost was people who did not receive the share of oil wealth running under their feet; people whose rights were violated, who have lost their farmlands and livelihoods at the cost of the pipeline that carries energy, but not for them. From slum dwellers who lost their homes to a real-estate bubble bloated by oil to victims of unresolved conflicts in the region and female sex workers attracted by the oil bonanza. These people’s lives have been hidden by the glossy corporate PR campaigns, which praise the pipeline project: “It is for the country’s greater good!” No doubt the states’ budgets have increased, but at what cost to the people who live their silent lives along this pipeline?
FC: How did you become involved/interested in your current work?
RE: I began photographing in 2002 focusing on the changes in the urban landscape of Baku (my home city) where traditional neighborhoods were replaced by the oil-fueled construction boom. I was following the story of my own neighborhood, people being pushed out of their own small homes that were erased to accommodate luxury high-rise apartments. At that time, I had no idea that the transforming streets of my city would lead to the major story of oil and its impact on life not only in Azerbaijan, but the neighboring countries of Georgia and Turkey. In 2006, I decided to follow the route of the oil pipeline from Baku, Azerbaijan, via Tbilisi, Georgia to the port of Ceyhan in Turkey.
FC: What was the significance of winning the IFDP in your career?
RE: Winning the IFDP grant gave me my first push. I was not a full time photographer then. I had an office job with a steady pay to support my passion in photography. Winning the grant gave me faith that what I was doing had some potential. It gave me confidence to follow my dream of becoming a full time professional. I left my office job the same year I got the IFDP grant and haven’t looked back ever since.
FC: Can you give a piece of advice to others doing important work with social change photography?
RE: It’s important to think of stories that are of universal significance. But stories themselves don’t have to be big. Anything can serve as an example. Every small story from every small corner of the world can have global significance. Discover a smaller corner and show a bigger picture.
FC: Can you comment on your connection to your subject matter and the importance of working in your own country/reigon?
RE: Local photographers can tell the stories of their own countries from a very intimate angle, simply by being immersed in the environment for a longer period of time, in other words, having it all under their skin. But it does not mean that outsiders’ stories are less compelling. They could be very fresh, they could be intimate too, they could be simply different. Everyone has his/her own unique vision that is being formed not only by the influences of cultures that we come from, but also from the more universal influences of the humanity we all share. Just like a Western photographer can come to Azerbaijan or Georgia and put together a powerful photographic portrait of the country, an Azerbaijani or Georgian photographer can go to any other place in the world and tell the story through his/her own eyes. We are all photographers and we try to make sense of the things that surround us. Our cultural fabric makes an impact on how we express ourselves, but it does not limit us geographically.