Rena Effendi's photographic works document life in various societies whose very way of living is jeopardised by the encroaching effects of industrialisation and globalisation.
Mainly focussing her lens on bucolic pastoral landscapes, the Azerbaijani photographer's works are an anthropological look at life in forgotten parts of society. Although not necessarily isolated, or tribal in a traditional sense, her subjects live by a code that jars with the ruthless pace of modernity.
This makes her works seem like they're somewhat frozen in time, a romantic throwback to days when the land was all that we needed to survive. It still can be though and Effendi doesn't want us to forget that, doesn't want us getting lost in traffic, headlines and likes.
Change is the recurrent theme throughout her works, particularly how people act in the face of them. Some of these changes, as mentioned, are global, others are more personal, like deaths within a family or community. In the acclaimed collection Transylvania: Built on Grass (2012) we are taken to various agricultural communities in Romania's Maramures region to see the daily lives, customs, rituals and overarching struggles of working the land as a means of both subsistence and commercial interest.
The nature of this kind of farming work, where farms aren't quite large enough to become a truly booming business, buoyed by investment and machinery, yet are too large for state subsidies, is that those who work on them - mainly kept within families - do so for their whole lives. Effendi captures this 'cradle to grave' way of living, where effort is almost directly proportionate to outcome. If you want more money, you put in more hours. It's gruelling and demanding work. One bad season could spell disaster.
What happens is that a family or community live under strain, constantly fighting the wolves from their door, but for the same reasons are forced to unite in a way that many urbanites might find difficult to relate to. Becoming part of the 'rat race' means people being cramped together, yet facing an existential isolation from their people and their surroundings. The farmer is the antithesis of this modern malaise. They're connected to the land in the most intimate of ways. They depend on it to keep them alive.
Survival underlines life there, but that doesn't mean life is frantic. In many ways, we are killed by our own sense of freedom, particularly that of the illusion of choice. There are so many lunches, so many ways to kill time, that our brains become overworked and we relinquish ourselves to another television series. Life in rural Romania is much slower paced. The smallest things are appreciated and everything is done correctly, with longevity in mind - of their land, their flocks and their own lives.
This slow-cooked perfection is where Effendi's camera comes in. She captures intimate moments, yet ones we probably wouldn't normally think to look twice at. Some people do make it out, particularly younger generations, but barely alive - or to put it better, barely living. Effendi recalls a lady who moved to France with her husband to work. There her mind was occupied in the same way as a territory in a warzone. Rent and bills laid siege on her thoughts, ones that when back home on her farm, were taken up by working with her hands.
In these moments, the lady called Maria, was able to think 'more beautiful thoughts'. It's a simplistic way of life, one that many people see themselves as having 'up-skilled' from, yet there is something else we have downgraded in the trade-off. The apartment might be more spacious, the bevelled television more intense, but happiness has been forced to the side, or at least, comes attached to another material goals.
Effendi, through depicting these societies in an honest and almost dreamlike way, captures their true face and the faces of those who populate the lands. When we see them online, or in a gallery, we are transported to those places, momentarily forgetting what we were previously too busy thinking about. Just by looking at their earthy simplicity, we too can think short-lived but beautiful thoughts.
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