Rena Effendi Still Life in the Zone

Gas masks scattered on the floor of a school lobby inthe abandoned city of Prypiat. As a result of the nuclearaccident and the subsequent radioactive fallout the entirepopulation of Prypiathad been evacuated and neverreturned home. Chernobyl, Ukraine, December 2010.

Birch tree growing through the floor of anabandoned gymin the ghost town of Pripyat. Followingthe radioactive fallout after the nuclear accident theentire population of Prypiat had been evacuated andnever returned home. Chernobyl, Ukraine, December 2010.

Hanna Zavarotnya'strophy falcon. "He came and ate my chicken, so I beat him with a stick"- Hanna strung up the falcon and hung him on a tree to scare off others from attacking her chickens. Kapavati village, Chernobyl, Ukraine, December2010.

Abandoned house swallowed by the wilderness, near the village of Noviye Sokoli. Zirka village, Chernobyl, Ukraine. December 2010.

Galina Konyushok's moonshine. Locals brew and consume large amounts of moonshine as they believe it prevents radiation sickness. Zirka village, Chernobyl, Ukraine. December 2010.

Maria Harlam's red currants. Collecting wild berries and mushrooms in the Zone is forbidden as they soak up radiation and are highly dangerous. Guben village, Chernobyl, Ukraine. December 2010.

Hanna Zavarotnya's pig, butchered for the New Year holidays in Kapavati village. 79-year-old Hanna Zavarotnya survived WWII Nazi occupation and the great famine of Stalin’s blockade after being almost eaten aliveby her villagers. She resettled back in her village just days after the nuclear disaster. Kapavati village, Chernobyl, Ukraine. December 2010.

Nadejda Gorbachenko's wine and corn from the orchard. Farming is forbidden in the Zone due to high levels of radiation in the soil. Guben village, Chernobyl, Ukraine. December 2010.

Deer horns in the shed of Galina Konyushok's house. Hunting is strictly forbidden in the Zone, due to high levels of radioactive contamination. Zirka village, Chernobyl, Ukraine. December 2010.

Galina Konyushok’s chicken broth. The food chain is contaminated with radiation, especially animals that consume local grain and vegetation. Zirka village, Chernobyl, Ukraine. December 2010.

Artist's Statement

Twenty-six years after the disaster, the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear accident are both visible like scars and invisible like air. While access to the area surrounding Reactor #4 is restricted with barbed wire and police checkpoints, more than 200 people – mostly elderly women – inhabit the 30 km area around it, now called the Zone of Alienation. 

These women survived the famine of Stalin’s blockade and Nazi occupation in WWII, and only days after the worst nuclear accident in the world’s history, they chose to return home. A pigeon flies close to its nest! Those who left are dying of sadness…, explains Maria Vitosh, one of the survivors.

Focusing on still life images – victuals, household items, relics of the disaster – I use the prism of nature morte to portray both the long-term effects of this nuclear catastrophe, and the power and persistence of the human spirit in the face of devastation. I’m also fascinated by the earth’s ability to teem with life, not long after annihilation. The death infused lives of the Chernobyl women, as seen through objects from their daily life, personify the promise and paradox of power – in reference to the dangers of nuclear energy and the awesome human will to survive. The story of Chernobyl turns Nietzsche’s dictum on its head – that which makes us stronger can also kill us. 

About the author

Born

1977, Baku, Azerbaijan

Nationality

Azerbaijani

Based in

Istanbul, Turkey

Rena Effendi grew up in the USSR witnessing her country’s rough path to independence, one marred by war, political instability and economic collapse. Educated as a linguist, she took her first photographs in 2001 after attending private painting classes. Ever since, she has photographed issues of conflict, social justice and the oil industry’s effects on people and the environment.

From 2002 to 2008, she followed a 1,700 km pipeline through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey documenting the impact this multibillion dollar project had on the impoverished farmers, fishermen and other citizens. Close to a hundred million dollars worth of oil is pumped daily to the West, however the people above ground live in desolation and despair in the shadow of false promises by governments and corporations to improve their lives. This six-year journey became her first book, Pipe Dreams: A Chronicle of Lives Along the Pipeline (2009). The project received numerous awards including: the Getty Images Grants for Editorial Photography (2009), the Fifty Crows International Fund Award and the Magnum Foundation Caucasus Photographer Award. Pipe Dreams was exhibited at the 52nd Venice Biennale (2007), the 2009 Istanbul Biennial and the Breda’s Museum (2010) amongst others.

Since 2007, she has covered a wide range of stories in the post-Soviet region together with Turkey and Iran, including the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict, female victims of heroin and sex trafficking in Kyrgyzstan and survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. In 2008, Rena received The National Geographic All Roads Photography Award for her portrayal of the disappearing culture of the Khinaliq village in the mountains of Azerbaijan. This work was exhibited in Washington DC and at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

In 2011, Rena Effendi received the Prince Claus Fund Award for Cultural Development and moved to Cairo where she currently focuses on issues surrounding the Egyptian Christian Coptic minority in the post-revolution era; for this project, she received a grant from the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund.

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