Liquid Land

Photographs and text by Rena Effendi
Hardcover, 112 pages
Schilt Publishing; 2013

Reviewed by Lara Shipley

Issue 52

Rena Effendi’s second monograph, Liquid Land, is a book comprised of two very different subjects: the artists’ father, an entomologist and photographer of rare butterflies, and the people living within the industrial ruin of the Absheron peninsula. At first glance through the book, the connective tissue between these subjects is unclear. The book contains Rena’s portraits and scenes depicting the inhumane conditions of Absheron, her father’s images of dead butterflies posed in natural tableaus, and mysterious old snapshots of him as a young man. The connection is Rena herself—her deeply personal involvement within her homeland in Absheron peninsula near Baku, and her desire for a relationship with a father long deceased.

Through first person narrative she reveals the complex associations between these lovely, mysterious images. Rena explains: “I co-authored Liquid Land with my father.” “Since working on this book I have gotten to know him much better than when he was alive.” Rena credits her father’s photos that she inherited when he died as luring her to photography. She compares his obsessive collecting with her own compulsive photographic practice. Furthermore, she associates her father’s role as collector, protector and exterminator of butterflies with her own role as a photographer of desperate people that she loves: “After I have my picture, I leave them behind, not much changed, them still limping.” Her father’s rare insects are also much like the people of Absheron. They are both living on the brink of extinction.

By combining her photographs with his she attempts to build a relationship with a man who she describes as distant while living. This section introduces the meat of the book, the images of the butterflies made by Rena’s father paired with her photographs in Absheron. While looking at these images, of both the dead butterflies and struggling people, we are reminded of Rena’s perspective, one of personal loss.

American audiences are all too familiar with photography projects that provide an exotic glimpse at desperate, far away peoples. By placing the viewer in her perspective, Rena brings us closer to her subject. Rena explains the conditions of the people of Absheron: “Living in these inhuman conditions for two decades now, they no longer have their village expanse but still breed livestock among the metal waste of factories and hang their laundry on oilrigs. The air they breathe, the water they drink, the playgrounds for their children are all contaminated and hostile. Yet life goes on in this dodgy urban concoction…”

It is the images that show this determined life, particularly those of children at play, that I find most intriguing. These are the least descriptive, and the least easy to pin down. Intermingled with landscapes that feel more typical of documentary projects representing desperate places, they show a world, both disturbing and fantastical, where these conditions are experienced as normal. The wasted, ruined land becomes a playground for children being children, not knowing anything else.

Liquid Land is a book worth spending time with. If well organized and thoughtfully designed, a photography book can provide cohesion for seemingly disparate works. Liquid Land is a delicate book. The small size, red leather cover with gold foil, and decorative butterfly endpapers, gives it a feeling of preciousness, of being lovingly made. Rena Effendi furthers this impression with the openness of her storytelling and the respectful sincerity of her images. She pushes the viewer to see connections in these seemingly unconnected parts, a process that reveals the more universal theme of her work: loss. In Liquid Land, Rena shows us people who have lost their land, butterflies long dead and a woman mourning a relationship with a deceased father that she never had.

Lara Shipley lives and works in Lawrence, Kansas.
To view Lara's work, please visit her website.

(Editor's note: Lara Shipley was featured in Issue 37)