Photojournalist Rena Effendi
Interview: Nezih Tavlas / June 2, 2021
“My stories are about human resilience”
(Courtesy of Rena Effendi)
(Courtesy of Rena Effendi)
Photojournalism News: What drew you to photojournalism?
Rena Effendi: I was studying painting and was getting restless while struggling with a brush and a canvas inside a painter's studio. Overtaken by curiosity I finally picked up a camera and walked outside in search of stories. I found it so exhilarating that I could not stop ever since.
Photojournalism News: What equipment do you use? Do you have a favourite lens/camera?
Rena Effendi: My camera of choice is still the one I used when I ﬁrst began as a photographer, It's an old Rolleiﬂex Planar 2.8 medium format ﬁlm camera.
Photojournalism News: What social media platforms do you use?
Photojournalism News: How do you prepare yourself before any assignment? What would you put in your camera bag for a typical task?
Rena Effendi: Other than my camera I carry a light meter, two small LED lights, a twin macro lens attachment, a water proof bag of ﬁlm, a notebook with a pen, a spare camera, usually Mamiya 6 medium format rangeﬁnder, a smartphone and lately a pair of glasses.
Photojournalism News: How would you best describe your style of work? What are you trying to say with your photography?
Rena Effendi: I am a social documentary photographer focused on observing the human condition. My stories are about human resilience, they are driven by empathy, I try to portray people in a calm and digniﬁed manner, often in their own environment.
Photojournalism News: How many photos do you take for one story?
Rena Effendi: Not too many since I work with ﬁlm and try to be frugal. I also spend a lot of time observing the environment and getting to know the people around me, gaining trust of their communities. Each roll has 12 frames, on a typical day I would shoot between 5 and 10 rolls, depending on the situation.
Photojournalism News: What is the last trip you made?
Rena Effendi: I went to Lebanon for the National Geographic magazine story, a sweeping look at the country's latest social developments.
Photojournalism News: What projects will you be working on next?
Rena Effendi: I am still in the middle of my Lebanon assignment for the National Geographic magazine.
Photojournalism News: Which of your photographs would you describe as your favourite? What makes them so special to you?
Rena Effendi: I don't have absolute favourites, each story brings something special that becomes part of me forever, adding a layer of cultural understanding and complexity that I find so exciting in this job. Some photographs bring about visceral memories of being in a place or meeting a person. They plunge me back and immerse me, allow me to relive these experiences. That's my favourite thing about a photograph, the sheer power of its memory, regardless if it's sad or happy. It can be a family building a hay stack in the ﬁelds of Transylvania under July sun or a Roma family crying and kissing goodbye their daughter who is getting married and leaving her parental home in Tarlabasi, Istanbul. This emotional kaleidoscope of moments and memories will forever be a part of me.
Photojournalism News: What message do you want your photos to convey?
Rena Effendi: I want people to look at my photographs and appreciate the diversity of human experiences and emotions, I don't want people to make judgements or arrive at quick assumptions, but rather observe and get more curious about the world we live in. I don't want to evoke pity or commiseration. I want people to recognize the power of human spirit and be in awe of it. I want to salute our human will to adapt and recover, resist and rebuild.
Photojournalism News: What does a photo need to be great in your eyes?
Rena Effendi: It needs to tell a story in a way that is nuanced and not predictable or clichéd. It needs to be layered and complex. I like images that haunt me, like a photospheric spectral imprint you get when you close your eyes after staring at the sun for too long,
Photojournalism News: In the digital age people consume billions of photos every single day, under the circumstances what could make a photo memorable?
Rena Effendi: Some photographs touch a real nerve. It could be something to do with current developments in society, A photograph could stir an avalanche of strong reactions, but then everyone forgets as soon as the moment passes. It's very difficult to predict what will make people remember and for how long, but I suppose the longevity of a photograph also depends on the course of human history.
Photojournalism News: What motivates you to continue taking pictures and what do you do to keep motivated?
Rena Effendi: As life unfolds and the world keeps changing so does my desire and curiosity to observe and document humanity in it evolves.
Photojournalism News: What was the biggest professional risk you have taken and what was the outcome?
Rena Effendi: I try to avoid unnecessary risks, but some situations can be unpredictable. It could be while you are working on a story somewhere the situation in that given place evolves beyond your control. I've been in a few conﬂict zones, but I can't really decide which one was the biggest professional risk. For example I was once caught in a city under bombardment, I was not prepared for it and lost the support on the ground as it turned out unreliable. The outcome was a promise to myself not to go there again, which I ended up breaking of course.
Photojournalism News: What would be your dream assignment?
Rena Effendi: Again something very difﬁcult to quantify, because every assignment brings something special. I love working in Latin America and I would love to do more assignments there, but it's so far from where I live now and such a rare opportunity that it still remains in the realm of dreaming.
Photojournalism News: What are the essential skills/ qualities a photojournalist should have?
Rena Effendi: Curiosity, empathy, good interpersonal skills, honesty and integrity, sense of urgency, responsibility and justice, adaptability, patience - lots of patience, emotional intelligence, creativity, cultural sensitivity, open mindedness and absence of judgment or bias -the list goes on, this is just to name a few.
Photojournalism News: What do you think about the digital manipulation of images?
Rena Effendi: In photojournalism only a small manipulation of toning and contrast adjustment is permissible as our images need to represent the reality in a way that is not misleading.
Photojournalism News: What does it mean to be an ethical photojournalist?
Rena Effendi: To me it means that I am not going to misrepresent those I photograph, I try to be culturally sensitive and politically aware, honest and open.
Photojournalism News: How do you see the role of photojournalism evolving in the world? Do you think photojournalism is losing its importance?
Rena Effendi: I think there are more platforms for storytelling now, than before. You can share your stories and get immediate feedback, even if the mainstream media is not publishing them. I don't think photojournalism is losing its relevance, but its deﬁnitely becoming more competitive and harder to maintain ﬁnancial stability in this job.
Photojournalism News: What is it like to be a female photojournalist in a male-dominated field?
Rena Effendi: There is still a lot of work to be done to ensure fairness and equality in this industry in terms of both race and gender. It's been challenging and frustrating for sure, but things are changing now, this is the time of reckoning, which will hopefully allow more space for diverse voices and storytellers.
Photojournalism News: Do you have any advice for aspiring photojournalists?
Rena Effendi: I think patience and persistence pays off in this line of work, also not being afraid to invest in your own personal storytelling.
Rena Effendi is an award-winning documentary photographer, whose early work focused on the human cost of oil. As a result, she followed an oil pipeline through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, collecting stories along the way. This work was published in 2009 in "Pipe Dreams A chronicle of lives along the pipeline". Effendi is a frequent contributor to the National Geographic magazine, and has worked on assignments for the New Yorker, New York Times, TIME and many others. Rena Effendi’s work has been shortlisted for the Prix Pictet twice in 2011 and 2019. Recipient of many international awards, such as the Prince Claus Fund Award for Culture and Development, World Press Photo, Getty Images Editorial Grant, Alexia Foundation Grant.