NARRATING THE BLIND FIELD: SITES OF PHOTOGRAPHIC AND ECOLOGICAL KNOWLEDGE IN RENA EFFENDI’S LIQUID LAND
Par Karla McManus (University of Regina)
In her 2012 monograph, Liquid Land : on anendangered species of people, the Azerbaijani photographer Rena Effendi complicates an easy reading of documentary realism by juxtaposing two bodies of work. The first, by Effendi, profiles the people and communities living in the oil-polluted Absheron Penninsula around the capital city of Baku. Refugees of decades of war and oil extraction, the subjects of her photographs make their homes in the abandoned factories and oil fields of a contaminated landscape. The second photographic series is by Effendi’s deceased father, Rustam Effendi, an entomologist who specialized in the butterflies of the Soviet Union. According to his daughter, some fifty photographs of butterflies are all the remaining visual evidence of the thousands of specimens he collected throughout his career, many which disintegrated in the years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. By following his « butterfly journal » and retracing his travels with her camera, Effendi creates a moving homage to her father’s memory, while animating the troubled legacy of oil extraction and scientific exploration in the Soviet and post-Soviet landscape of Azerbaijan.
In this essay, I argue that Effendi uses temporal and spatial slippage to animate her contemporary images of oil refugees, activating them with reference to the past environmental history that her father helped to research. In juxtaposing her father’s photographs of endangered butterflies alongside more recent images of Azerbaijani citizens living in liminal and abandoned industrial spaces, Effendi successfully creates a « blind field » of contemplation (Roland Barthes, 1980, 57). I borrow this metaphor from the offhand reference that Barthes makes to the idea in his seminal work La Chambre Claire (1980) translated into English as Camera Lucida (1981). Barthes argues that unlike in cinema, where the movement of the subject on the screen creates a space hors-champ, the area outside the cinematic shot, the photographic subject has no such ability to escape the confines of the frame. To be frozen in time is the prevalent metaphor for the photographic subject, linked to action of memory or even the death of the subject (Christian Metz, 1985). Yet such a limitation can be overcome not in the photograph in itself but through the viewer’s active engagement with images. I argue that the photobook format helps to promote this dialectical relationship between past and present, by juxtaposing images from across time and space and offering the viewer an opening into the complexity that is the genre of eco-photography.
Born in 1977, and currently based in Istanbul, Effendi has had her photojournalistic work published in National Geographic, Time, The New Yorker amongst other world-renowned print and online venues. Effendi has been awarded grants from the Alexia Foundation as well as a Getty Images Editorial Grant and has won awards from World Press Photo and Sony World Photography. She has also been short-listed twice for the Prix Pictet, the award for photography and sustainability sponsored by the private Swiss bank. Effendi began to photograph seriously in 2001 after working for the Azerbaijan International Oil Company as a translator from the age of nineteen. Among her first projects as a photographer was an assignment for British Petroleum, one of the main employers of young educated people in Azerbaijan. Hired to take promotional shots for a company calendar that would depict life along the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline that runs through Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, the experience was eye-opening for the young photographer. Fascinated by the things and people she saw from the company car window, she would return to these places to, in her own words, « go behind the happy calendar-smiles that I saw during my first trip » (Effendi, 2010). The project eventually resulted in the monograph, Pipe Dreams: A Chronicle of Lives Along the Pipeline.
Shot all in black and white, Pipe Dreams shows a monochromatic landscape of urban decay, industrial pollution, and rural poverty exacerbated by weak environmental laws and corporate and industrial development placed above human and environmental rights. In the book, portraits of oil refugees are followed by images of polluted water, where fishermen struggle to make their livings in a changing economy that privileges industrial extraction over subsistence fishing. The landscape is marked by ever-present oil jigs, derricks, and slick liquid shining in the sun rendered in dark chiaroscuro. There is no hopefulness in these images, no sign of nature in resilience, only animals and people living in a ruin.
Liquid Land picks up many of the same themes as the earlier monograph, the human cost of oil extraction through the intertwined impact of environment and habitat destruction, but focuses solely on Effendi’s hometown of Baku and the surrounding region of the Absheron Penninsula, which translates from Persian as « Salty Waters », because of its location on the salinated waters of the Caspian sea. Unlike Pipe Dreams, Liquid Land shows us the land and people in saturated and dramatic colour.
Effendi’s choice to use colour adds a powerful sense of resiliency to the images that is absent in the earlier project. Indeed not only is colour used as a signifier of strength and survival in her subjects, as they stare directly at the camera, challenging the viewing world with their gazes, but the colour she chooses to use is exaggerated, richly over-saturated. Her colour references are not the cool muted tones most common in art photography today, as seen in the neutral palette of the Becher School photographers, but instead the vintage saturated colour of slide film. This echo of a past palette connects her images to the colours in her father’s butterfly images. Standing out as a major difference between the two projects, colour represents an evolution in the technique and style of the photographer: from a more traditional social documentary use of black and white to one using colour that is more steeped in the poetic or surreal approach.
Colour is best suited for this project as it gives the non-human and human subjects of the photographs equal saturation, and an inner glow that colours the beings and the landscape with a powerful palette that seems more resilient than the darkness of the photographs in Pipe Dreams. Colour’s power to authenticate, to naturalize, to animate and enliven a photograph is essential in the eyes of today’s viewer. Indeed, many of my students see black and white as artificial and even use it as a distancing effect to push the viewer away. Colour, in 2020, has become a necessary form of authentication. To the scientist, colour is equally important as a way to fully and objectively represent the truth of his object of study. How can you capture the truth and beauty of a butterfly without the use of colour ? I can only assume that Effendi chose to photograph his specimens in colour for its very ability to capture the markings and details of each butterfly, to fully visually describe the patterns on their wings, to represents the colours of the plants upon which these endangered creatures fed and reproduced. Colour, in this way, becomes another point of authenticity: a lacerating element in this story of environmental injustice, of the photographer’s personal feelings towards her father, his work, and her own practice of photography. It also functions to strengthen the photobook’s narrative structure, connecting the disparate images into a sequence of personal and environmental loss.
The book is structured in two parts: the first includes a reflexive essay by Rena Effendi about her father, her beginnings as a photographer, and the connection she feels to him through her work. This essay, evocative and provocative, contrasts the natural world of the butterfly hunter with the polluted landscape of the eco-photographer. This section is illustrated by photographs taken by Rustam – not his scientific work but images taken in his youth. Mostly in black and white, slightly blurry, comedic and somewhat surreal representations of the photographer, his youthful experiments with the camera, they include shots of shadows, feet, hunting in the mountains with butterfly nets, and a portrait of Rustam with his butterflies. Finally, early images by Rena are included: black and white images taken in the State Institute of Zoology, where Rustam worked, of taxidermied animals including a pelican, a shark, and a giraffe. These images demonstrate the connection between father and daughter, as well as Rena’s own early interest in the ecological. The second section, divided by a thick piece of mustard coloured paper stock with the title of the book repeated, includes only a short-written introduction before the series of images begins.
The images taken by Rena Effendi of the people of Baku and its surrounding landscape are introduced succinctly : « Land is liquid underneath these people’s homes – their present survival tenuous, their children’s future uncertain » (Effendi, 2012, p. 27).
Many of the photographs show children playing in what most viewers would consider dangerous spaces, buildings that look like they will soon fall down, riddled with detritus and industrial equipment. Nevertheless, the children find ways to make these spaces their playgrounds. It is the same for the adults pictured, their homes seem makeshift and temporary, yet they decorate them with flowers and hang their laundry to dry on lines attached to oil rigs. Waste, ruin, contamination, abandonment are some of the words that come to mind in viewing Effendi’s images. The reality of the people living in decommissioned Soviet-era oil fields is pictured as a permanent state of being, not something that is being addressed by officials or government. What we see is the remnants of unchecked oil extraction, unconcerned with the effects on people, animals, or environment. It is here that Rustam’s butterflies insert themselves as a reminder for the landscape that is lost. Deliberately juxtaposed in diptych formation with portraits of residents, Effendi makes a subtle yet striking statement about the fragility of life: if butterflies can become endangered and disappear so quickly, what about the humans who live where they once thrived ?
Liquid Land falls within the growing genre of eco-photography, a complex and relational category of images that I have elsewhere described as expressing a concern for the state of the planet either through its subject, materiality, production, or reception (McManus, 2016, 3). Eco-photographs can represent event-driven spectacles that are instantly recognizable or subtly reference complex socio-economic and enviro-political phenomena, requiring a concentrated awareness and sustained environmental knowledge to appreciate. From images of oil-coated sea birds blighted by a deep sea tanker spill, to representations of activists from Extinction Rebellion protesting with placards outside of the Louvre, to photo essays that depict the « slow violence » and environmental injustice of rising sea levels in Bangladesh (Munem Wasif, 2009), eco-photographs include the visceral and immediate as well as the subversive and contemplative (Rob Nixon, 2011). The breadth of form and subject matter in eco-photography suggests its growing importance as a genre in a world that today is being shaped by the global perception of environmental risk, informed by media representations, from photographs to visual graphics, as much as by scientific consensus (Alison Anderson, 1997; Ulrich Beck, 2009).
In our current age of image overload, it has become essential to consider how eco-photographs are presented and circulated, in what context, and to what purpose, and how this framing shapes the way that their meaning is perceived—and as a result influences the viewer’s response in unpredictable ways. Like many types of politically active images, such as war photographs, interpretation is often contingent on the framing of the images within the context of presentation, whether it be in the newspaper or in a photobook. As a result, what the viewer brings to the image plays a central role in their reception and interpretation. The feelings of sympathy, compassion, and tenderness that arise in the viewer of eco-photography are personal. Barbie Zelizer has described the subjunctive quality of the news image as « soft[ening] the fact-driven force of the photograph by introducing change, relativity, implication, and hypothesis into the act of viewing, forcing people to imagine and interpret a sequence of action beyond the picture’s taking » (Zelizer, 2010, 6). This is, I would argue, one of the strengths of the genre of eco-photography in book form. The viewer is able to bring to the viewing experience their own history, free of the structured looking of the news image or story and thus shaped by their own understanding of landscape and human geography.
Such is the case with Effendi’s project on the past, present, and future of environmental injustice in the Azerbaijan Penninsula. While the form of her project, the photobook, seems to offer a structured visual narrative that is shaped by sequencing and layout, the manner in which Effendi sequences her story, inserts a form of « unsettledness » or openness in the reading of the images, « making space for a phenomenological examination and perception » (Bettina Lockemann, 2013, 126). This is achieved by contrasting the past and present environmental history of the landscape around Baku, through the photographer’s personal story of her father’s quest to scientifically document a slice of the wondrous natural world he observed, and which is now no longer. Liquid Land offers the viewer a dynamic narrative arc that connects the history of the region to its current ecological crisis, supported by the subtext of a personal relationship of photographer and parent to the land, its people, and its natural splendour. The temporal contingencies inherent in Liquid Land, its ability to reach across the dissonance of time and space, is part of the illusion of the real. The surrealist hallucinatory sense of mastery over the image works to unite the past and present in Liquid Land and brings the viewer in and out of the single frame, building a larger space of relational affect between images that allows us to understand the complexities of ecological thought at work. In such a way, the viewer is pricked to make connections between images, across time and space and beyond the frame.
The photobook also offers a unique way of supporting the pathos that is often inherent in eco-photography. Effendi identifies with what she calls « Butterfly guilt » one of the feelings generated when she photographs people in desperate situations. As the child of a butterfly killer who captured and pinned thousands of specimens which have now disintegrated into dust, photographing can evoke a number of difficult emotions. For if, as Barthes argued, every photograph contains with it the germ of a catastrophe waiting to happen, then Effendi’s photographs attest to a double disaster. On the one hand, the subjects of her photographs have been forced out of their villages to live in abandoned and contaminated factories that literally drip with oil. On the other, the photograph itself, as a testament to time’s passage, represents the death of a moment that will never come again. In reconciling herself to a career as a photographer, Effendi has stated that she must accept that her work doesn’t help people. In Liquid Land she writes that « I often feel guilty about the photographs I take of people in desperate situations. […] I arrive to find a version of hell on earth, but people still tidy themselves up and their places before I point my camera at their mess. I often leave conflicted about my job, my purpose, and I think about what my father said about evolution: nature is not communist – some thrive, some merely survive » (Effendi, 2012, 19).
The connections between Rena Effendi’s moving photobook Liquid Land, subtitled on an endangered species of people, and Roland Barthes’ final published work on photography go beyond the usefulness of a Barthian metaphor. While Effendi’s monograph is primarily a project about the people and landscape of the Absheron penninsula, a region of Azerbaijan impacted by centuries of oil extraction, it is also haunted – as is Camera Lucida – by the death of a parent. Barthes’ Camera Lucida, which is permeated with the recent death of his mother, never reproduces a photograph of the absent parent. Instead, Barthes describes in detail the act of searching for her in snapshots, looking not for a proper likeness but instead searching for her « being », for « the truth of the face that I loved » (Barthes, 1980, 67). For Effendi, as she writes in the short essay that accompanies her book, her father’s death when she was only fourteen years old led her « to look at him with a different set of eyes. He was no longer just a father – he was a person » (Effendi, 2012, 20). Trying to understand this person by following his travels into the countryside in search of specimens brought Effendi towards her first photographs, taken in the State Institute of Zoology where he once worked. For Effendi, these images « were the beginnings of me as a photographer » (Effendi 2012, 20). Indeed, the first image in the book after the title page is one of Rustam Effendi, the photographer’s father. This first photograph, a black and white snapshot of Rustam, shot from a side profile, shows him holding a dead butterfly in his hands. Behind him, blurred by a short depth of field, we can just make out a series of specimen cases, filled with more death.
Life and death are juxtaposed in the pages of Liquid Land, representing a dialectic that Barthes argued was ever present in photography. Yet, here, we have literal death as well as metaphoric. Although these beautiful butterflies appear full of colour and life, they are in fact already dead: doubly so. [Fig. 6 : Left image : Rustam Effendi. « Pseudochasara alpina Stgr. Alpine habitat at over 1800 metres above sea level in both North and South Caucasus. Nearly extinct in Azerbaijan due to over-grazing of pastures. » Right image : Rena Effendi. « Rusting Kiosk in Hovsani. Baku, Azerbaijan. » 2005. Pages 90-91. Images courtesy of Rena Effendi.] Rustam photographed these brightly painted corpses after capturing, killing, and pinning them. Then, strangely, he took them out of their cases and placed them onto their complementary plants to recreate their mutualistic lived existence in the landscape. Like all photographs, the photograph of death is both a moment frozen in time and a cage to still the movement of the subject. Barthes writes that « When we define the Photograph as a motionless image, this does not mean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means that they do not emerge, do not leave : they are anaesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies » (Barthes, 1980, 57). Unlike cinema, in which the movement of the subject on the screen creates a spatial hors-champ, a blind field where a subject can continue to live and exist outside the spectator’s vision, the photographic figure has no such ability to escape the confines of the frame. Yet such a limitation can be overcome, according to Barthes, not in the photograph itself but through the power of viewer’s gaze. The punctum, that pricking of feeling in the viewer, can transform the photograph from one of banal details and facts into an active image, fuelled by a desire to reach beyond the frame. The viewer’s response can overcome the limitations of the referent to create a blind field, something that helps to enrich the subjective and contingent relationship between viewer and eco-photograph.
Liquid Land does this for me. By juxtaposing her father’s photographs of endangered butterflies alongside more recent images of Azerbaijani citizens living in liminal and abandoned industrial spaces, Effendi complicates the straightforward documentary reading of her work. By evoking the loss of her father, the loss of his work, and the loss of the natural world around Baku in the fragile form of dead and extinct butterflies, in the struggles of families in a harsh environment made through political and economic decisions, she successfully creates a blind field of contemplation. Rather than a discrete and individual meaning contained by the image’s frame we are asked to construct a larger dynamic narrative. In such a way, I am pricked with feeling for the human and non-human subjects of Liquid Land and driven to make connections between images all the while looking beyond the factual details of the frame.
 This concept comes to Barthes through the work of André Bazin, the influential critic and theorist of cinema, and one of the founders of journal Cahiers du Cinéma (1951). As Colin McCabe and Adam Lowenstein have both pointed out, Barthes reference to Bazin is “more puzzling than enlightening” because nowhere does he actually tell us where the term comes from. (Adam Lowenstein, 2007, 55) The blind field is not discussed either in “The Ontology of Photography” (2009) or in his work on Cinema. Indeed, as McCabe has mused, it may be that Barthes has unconsciously absorbed Bazin’s theory so completely that the concept of the blind field becomes almost a “factual hallucination” in itself. (Colin McCabe 1997, 74–75).
 According to Rena Effendi, these slides were produced to accompany a manuscript on the endangered butterflies of the Soviet Union, which was never published (Effendi, 2012, 4).
Anderson, Alison. 1997. Media, Culture and the Environment. Communications, Media, and Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Barthes, Roland. 1980. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang.
Bazin, André. 2009. “Ontology of the Photographic Image.” In What Is Cinema?. Translated by Timothy Barnard, 3–12. Montreal: Caboose. 2009.
Beck, Ulrich. 2009. World at Risk. English ed. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
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. 2012. Liquid Land: On an Endangered Species of People. Amsterdam: Schilt Publishing.Lockemann, Bettina. 2013. “A Phenomenological Approach to the Photobook.” In Imprint: Visual Narratives in Books and Beyond, 83–127. Negative. Stockholm: Art and Theory.
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In her photobook, Liquid Land : on an endangered species of people (2012), Azerbaijani photographer Rena Effendi juxtaposes two bodies of work, drawing attention to the history and legacy of oil extraction in the Absheron Penninsula region. Liquid Land offers the viewer a dynamic narrative arc that connects the history of the region to its current ecological crisis, supported by the subtext of a personal relationship of photographer and parent to the land, its people, and its natural splendour. In juxtaposing her father’s photographs of endangered butterflies alongside more recent images of Azerbaijani citizens living in liminal and abandoned industrial spaces, Effendi successfully creates a « blind field » of contemplation which helps the viewer to connect more deeply with the subject. Unlike in cinema, where the movement of the subject on the screen creates a space hors-champ, the photographic figure has no such ability to escape the confines of the frame. Yet such a limitation can be overcome, according to Roland Barthes, not in the photograph itself but through the viewer’s active engagement with images. This essay argues that it is through the unsettled narrative of the photobook that Effendi successfully connects the past and present of environmental history in Azerbaijan. As such, the genre of eco-photography comes alive for the viewer, offering a phenomenological and affective response to a complex and multi-faceted topic that reaches across both space and time.
eco-photography, environmental history, photobook, phenomonology, landscape, oil extraction, blind field, colour photography, Azerbaijan, animal photography.
Dans son livre de photographie Liquid Land : on an endangered species of people (2012), la photographe azerbaïdjanaise Rena Effendi juxtapose deux ensembles d’œuvres, attirant l’attention du lecteur sur l’histoire et l’héritage de l’extraction pétrolière dans la péninsule d’Absheron. Liquid Land s’appuie sur un arc narratif puissant qui rattache l’histoire de sa région à sa crise écologique actuelle, sous-tendu en filigrane par une filiation à la terre, sa splendeur naturelle et son peuple, ainsi qu’entre les images elles-mêmes. En juxtaposant des photographies de papillons en voie de disparition réalisées par son père et des images plus récentes d’Azerbaïdjanais vivant dans des espaces industriels abandonnés et à la marge, Effendi réussit à élaborer un « champ aveugle » de contemplation, permettant au spectateur de s’attacher plus profondément au sujet. Contrairement au cinéma, où le mouvement du sujet sur l’écran crée un espace hors-champ, le figurant photographique ne peut échapper à la bordure du cadre. Pourtant, cette limite peut être surmontée, selon Roland Barthes, non pas au sein de la photographie elle-même, mais grâce à l’implication active du spectateur avec l’image. Cet essai démontre qu’à travers la narration instable du livre de photographie, Effendi parvient à relier le passé et le présent de l’histoire environnementale en Azerbaïdjan. Ainsi, le genre de l’éco-photographie prend vie face au spectateur, et offre une réponse à la fois sensible et phénoménologique à un sujet complexe et multidimensionnel qui s’étire dans le temps et l’espace.
Éco-photographie ; histoire environnementale ; livre de photographie ; phénoménologie ; paysage ; extraction pétrolière ; champ aveugle ; photographie en couleur ; Azerbaïdjan ; photographie animalière.
Karla McManus est une historienne de l’art et une théoricienne visuelle, spécialisée dans l’étude de la photographie et de l’imaginaire environnemental. Son projet de livre actuel, Eco-Photography: Justice, Nature, and the Global Environmental Imaginary, sous contrat avec les presses universitaires de McGill-Queens, se penche sur la façon dont la photographie a influencé la compréhension globale de la crise environnementale actuelle. Parmis ses publications récentes autour du thème de l’écologie et de l’image, on peut citer “How Anthropo-scenic! Concerns and Debates about the Age of the Anthropocene”, pour le catalogue d’exposition Anthropocene: Burtynsky, Baichwal, De Pencier (AGO and Goose Lane Editions, 2018), « Above, Below, and Behind the Camera: the Perspective of Animals” dans From Ego to Eco: Mapping Shifts from Anthropocentrism to Ecocentrism (Brill Press, 2018), and « Cecil the Lion’s Networked Image: The Post-Photographic Media Ecology of Environmental Concern, » dans Post-Photographie? a Special Issue of Captures. Figures, théories et pratiques de l’imaginaire, (1/1: 2016). Son article “The Future-Past, the Future-Present, the Future-Possible: The Chernobyl Exclusion Photographs of David McMillan,” dans Through Post-Atomic Eyes (McGill-Queen’s University Press) paraîtra en 2020.