Rena Effendi Interview
by Sharon Boothroyd
From the series Chernobyl: Still Life in the Zone, by Rena Effendi.
The nuclear accident of Chernobyl occurred in 1986. Although most of the 30km area remains restricted, about 230 people still live there in what was, and to some extent still is, a devastation. This area is known as The Zone of Alienation. Most of the inhabitants are elderly women who have lived a lifetime witnessing horror, including Nazi occupation and The Great Famine during Stalin’s rule. However this is their home and that is where they choose to remain.
No matter how damaged the land is and how harsh the experience, they still call it and make it home.
Excerpt from Institute for Artist Management.
Rena Effendi visited these inhabitants and witnessed their lives for us. As in all her work, the human essence of survival and the fragility of life are interwoven in a narrative that is as engrossing as it is empowering.
Recently shortlisted for the Prix Pictet Photography prize for sustainability, currently on show at the Saatchi Gallery, Rena Effendi is showing her true colours to a wider audience. Though she is not new to prestigious awards having won the Prince Claus Fund Award for Culture and Development in 2011, National Geographic ‘All Roads’ award in 2008 and Getty Images Editorial Grant in 2006. Effendi has exhibited worldwide and is a key figure in documentary photography.
SB: Gender, identity, vulnerable people and those at risk are prominent subjects of your work yet dealt with in a very empathetic manner. What is it about these nuanced issues of humanity that interests you, as well perhaps as the more obvious photojournalistic themes of war and conflict?
RE: I think that when the work is socially engaged, it becomes more compelling and therefore lives longer in the minds of the people, makes a stronger impact. I am fascinated with the human power of survival, our adaptability and our will to persevere in spite of difficult conditions and challenges that life puts in front of us. The prevalence of human spirit over any hardship brought about by war, natural disaster, nuclear catastrophe, social discrimination, rejection or loss is the major theme of my work.
Your work seems to portray tenderly the clash between delicacy and brutality. Do you think being a woman has influenced how you take pictures?
I think that the world we live in is very fragile and this fragility makes each individual experience unpredictable. When things are going well I can’t stop thinking — but what if it’s only now and what happens next? Sometimes I think that I am in full control, but it’s only an illusion. It’s like I am walking on this very thin thread, swaying left and right, trying to balance. I think that acknowledging the fact that you are not in control is very humbling both for men and for women. Some people call it “finding God”. For me, it’s simply a fact of life. All I can do is make the best possible effort to retain my humanity. I have found that what interests me most is these tender human moments in the face of disaster or brutal life experience. I am not the only one referencing it in my work – humanity is almost every one’s subject.
What makes you decide to pursue a project?
A theme that intrigues me, consumes me, gives me a feeling of restlessness, it has to be something that literally kicks me out of the house. Self-motivation is a difficult exercise for everyone, this is why it’s important to be truly interested in the project you are embarking on, this is why they call them – “personal”, as the work has to resonate with you first of all and then with others.
How much research do you do before you go on assignment? How do the aspects of research and responding to the situation you are in complement together?
Each story is different, but usually it is a little bit of both. For some stories it’s necessary to do research beforehand. However, I very much like to keep it fresh and open. Sometimes it’s good to go in without any knowledge whatsoever, almost blind-folded, because then when you open your eyes the scene is more vivid. I rely a lot on intuition and serendipity. Coming in with this ‘virgin’ perspective helps you to be sensitive and have a more nuanced view of the place, notice details that you could omit or render unimportant if you overdo on your research. Not knowing also gives you a sense of courage, you dare to do more, go further, you are willing to experiment, whereas when you read and see too much about the place before you go in, you impose the invisible barriers of knowledge that may stop you from exploring the story from a fresh angle.
How do you think women can make the best of a career as a photographer if they also want to have a family and might need to stay at home more?
Tough question. It’s hard work. It’s been very difficult for me to balance my professional life with family. I am blessed with a very supportive family, but being away from my daughter as she grows up is extremely difficult. I just hope that she will understand one day that her mom has a very cool job.
What is it about your job that you love most?
Aside from the act of taking pictures, my favorite part is to look over the results and build a visual narrative. I get excited when I see good photographs and relive the moments from the story. These moments stay with me forever, they enrich my life.