Born in Baku, Azerbaijan and based in Istanbul, Turkey, photographer Rena Effendi gained international notice for her work capturing the lives of people along the oil pipeline that runs through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. Her work is both artistic and documentary – through elegant compositions she tells the individual stories people on the margins, whether in urban, industrial or rural settings, giving them agency and voice through sensitive visual portrayals. Rena began her practice in 2002 and by 2005 she won an honorable mention in National Geographic’s “All Roads” photography competition, which marked the acceleration of her career. In 2006 she won the Getty Images Editorial Photography Grant and the Giacomelli Memorial Fund awards and she exhibited her work in France. Her work has been featured in various international publications including National Geographic, The New Yorker, Newsweek, TIME, The New York Times magazine, Vogue, Marie Claire, The Sunday Times, Le Monde, Le Figaro, Newsweek, International Herald Tribune, Courrier International, Ogoniok and others. In 2009, she published her first book “Pipe Dreams: A chronicle of lives along the pipeline,” in which she photographed the communities and landscapes along the 1700-kilometer Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, showing the human cost of economic growth and environmental decline Environmentalism featured strongly in her next monograph called Liquid Land, published in 2013, as an ode to her father’s work during the Soviet Union. In the book, Rena’s photographs were juxtaposed with images of butterflies collected by her entomologist father in the Soviet Union, a metaphor showing the fragility of Azerbaijan’s natural beauty. Rena has also been the recipient of many more awards including the Alexia 2018 Professional Grant, the Prince Claus Fund Award for Culture and Development, World Press Photo for observed portraits in 2014, SONY World Photography Award in the fine art category, the Getty Images Editorial Grant, and the Prix Pictet Award in Photography and Sustainability, where she was shortlisted. She has exhibited work across the world and is represented in various collections including the Saatchi Gallery, Miami Art Basel, Istanbul Modern, and the 52nd Venice Biennial.
As a pioneering female photographer in Azerbaijan, one of the most compelling subjects of Rena’s work is how people and especially women struggle to overcome their circumstances despite cultural and environmental factors. Recent projects include ‘The Crossing Point’ a haunting photo series on Middle Eastern and African refugees fleeing across the border between Macedonia and Greece. Through her lens, Rena captures both the desperation and humanity of the refugees. Her portraits portray the poverty and terror of the people fleeing war, violence and economic failure in their home counties but also their reveals their personalities and individual dignity despite their current conditions and their desire to survive against all odds. She also completed two significant photo essays on Azerbaijan. In 2006, her project ‘Khinaliq Village’ focused on the inhabitants of the remote village of Khinaliq high in the Caucasus Mountains near the Russian border as they maintain their traditional lifestyle despite a declining population and increasing modernity. In 2018, her series for National Geographic entitled ‘Caspian Mystique,’ was a travelogue of images of Bakuvians set against both new and old communities and architecture, showing the complexity of contemporary life in the city and the Absheron peninsula. Her love and respect for the people of Azerbaijan is shown through her use of framing and perspective, a view of Azerbaijan told by an Azerbaijani. Washed in sunlight, the images portray the city as grounded in nostalgia and hopeful for the future; her focus on the people of Azerbaijan highlights the humanity that makes Baku the vibrant city that it is.