10 minutes with Rena Effendi

Interviews with Photographers November 1, 2013 7:14 am

When did you first know that you wanted to be a photographer?

I knew I wanted to be a photographer when I picked up a real camera and held it in my hands for the first time. It really just felt right holding it and I literally could not put it down. It was an old manual Nikon, FM series, metal and heavy with a very loud shutter noise, winding it was almost like cocking a revolver. Strangely, I loved the loud sound of it. I remember taking a portrait of my friend sitting on a bench under a six hundred year old tree in a courtyard of an ancient palace in Sheki, Azerbaijan. The setting was spectacular and framing that portrait really intrigued me. I knew I had a black and white film in there, so I saw everything in black and white. I simply don’t remember any colors in that frame. It felt like there was a switch in my head that turned everything in some sort of mental monochrome picture.



Who were the first photographers that inspired you?

Robert Frank and Diane Arbus are my early inspiration. I was instantly drawn to the other worldliness and the velvety blacks in their images of America. Maybe I responded to them because they reminded me of the grim palette of my own Soviet childhood. I am not sure, but something about these pictures really struck a cord in me, or more like a sad and yearning musical note that made me connect to photography in a special way. I went to the streets with a camera and the photographs of Arbus and Frank gave me the courage to face the weirdness of the street.

You have two published books, including your most recent, Liquid Land, which you co-authored with your father. Can you tell us about how you got started on the book and how long you spent working on it?

Liquid Land goes back to my childhood, it takes me back to the days when my father was still alive, so in a way, it’s a life-long project. My father passed away in 1991, right before the break-up of Soviet Union, the day he dreamed would one day come, but unfortunately he missed it. He was a scientist, an entomologist specializing in butterflies and he hated the Soviet empire and the Communist regime with a passion. After he passed away, his colleague gave me an unpublished manuscript of his work, along with drawings and 6×6 color slides depicting endemic butterflies of Azerbaijan, carefully posed on flowers, captured by my father and pinned down for a picture. He collected about 30,000 butterflies and encased them in glass boxes, spending 40 years of his life hunting them in the Caucasus and the Pamirs. But his collection is deteriorating in the hands of the state, the butterflies are slowly turning to dust. Because of this, I felt compelled to publish his life’s work in some form. My friend and photographer Thomas Dworzak saw the butterfly manuscript and nudged me to do something with my pictures and his butterflies. I put my father’s butterflies together with my pictures of the decaying industrial landscapes of Baku and the portraits of people trapped in the noxious environments of oil fields and crumbling Soviet factories and the two very unlikely images somehow rhymed. It became an enthralling experiment for me to put this book together. I also saw it as a strange family album, where I was having a visual dialogue with my dead father.



Do you remember the hardest photo that you ever took?

The hard part is not so much taking a picture, but getting to a picture. I am talking about access and all aspects of that notion: finding the picture geographically, getting permissions, understanding the subject, preparing yourself mentally and emotionally for it… Everything that happens before a picture is very hard and it can be harder for some images and easier for others. But once I am in the shooting mode, I become daring and I follow my instincts. There, in the moment, with the subject and all other elements of nature and life dancing around me – the light, the mood, the facial expressions, the colors, the movements, I only just try to capture it in the right frame. If I have it all locked in one space and moment of time, I focus on getting it right. It’s like picking jittery fish in the aquarium using a small satchel. However, there are some situations I’ve observed that were tragic, but even then, I was so focused on the task that I tried not to allow myself to fall apart. It does not mean that I am not emotional about whatever is going on in front of me. I have feelings. I just try to channel them into photographs.

If you could go back ten years, what advice would you give yourself?

Giving myself a retrospective advice is almost like regretting. I try not to regret anything I’d done in life, but rather move on. There are definitely things I had done wrong and I had probably wasted a lot of time too, but I don’t regret anything, since it’s all part of my life now and my life, so far, came together nicely, like a good picture.


Any words of wisdom for the up-and-comers?

People often ask me that. And the only answer I can give to this is trite – patience. It is also hard to give a general advice to a large and diverse group of individuals – the up and coming photographers. In this crazy world of photography, everyone has a different diagnosis.


(Rena is based in Cairo, Egypt. See more of her work, here)

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