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‘In Istanbul, you always see these moments that are like little time capsules.’
Gems in this
The work of Azerbaijani photographer Rena Effendi is a study into the adaptability of humankind. From war zones in eastern Ukraine to the oil pipelines destroying communities across Europe and Asia, Rena strikes the impossible balance between curiosity and sensitivity — a skill that has made her the renowned documentary photographer she is today. We sat down with Rena to hear about where to eat, unwind and bask in culture in her Istanbul Travel Playbook.
Growing up under the Iron Curtain, Rena’s experiences of traveling started late, but have since taken her from isolated communities in the northern Carpathian Mountains to outposts on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. Based in Istanbul since 2015, when she’s not reporting for National Geographic, The Wall Street Journal or Monocle magazine, you’ll find her wandering the city’s rich and storied neighborhoods or recharging at one of the city’s ancient hammams.
On your earliest memories of traveling
Growing up in Baku, travel was not really affordable or even possible. But I always had that itch to see other places. The first time I traveled outside of the country was after the breakup of the Soviet Union. I won an office lottery and the prize was two tickets to any destination in Germany. I thought Berlin was too Soviet, so I chose Munich. I expected a fair amount of decadence because that was the narrative we were fed. [Munich] was completely different from where I grew up –– I just remember being blown away by everything: different culture, different architecture, different mentality.
On the Soviet Union and finding your identity in Baku
I grew up in a family of nonconformist dissidents — my father despised the Communist Party and was never a member, and my mother only joined because it was impossible to travel or get housing without membership. So I grew up in a bubble of people that didn’t embrace the ideology. Because we were part of a larger union of 15 republics, the identity of being Azerbaijini was not rooted in my childhood — instead my identity was shaped by the city where I grew up, Baku. And Baku has a very specific identity.
‘The awesome human power of adaptation and survival. That’s what I focus on with my work all around the world.’
On how local issues drove your interest in photography
In the middle of Baku’s oil boom in the late 90s, I noticed my neighborhood was changing, and I became curious. It was an old, traditional neighborhood, and homes were being demolished and replaced by high-rises. So I started meeting people that were affected by urbanization and photographing them. I spent four years documenting that. After working on this project in Baku, I started poking into other stories about oil. I followed the entire course of the pipeline from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean, documenting communities living along it to see how oil affected their lives.
On the main motivations for the photography that you do
I often end up in hard places, and what interests me about the human condition is the will to survive: the awesome human power of adaptation and survival. That’s what I focus on with my work all around the world. It varies from place to place, from one hardship to another, but the main idea is the adaptability of the human spirit.
On the most unique places you’ve visited through your work
My first assignment with National Geographic was in the Maramureș region of Romania along the northern Carpathian Mountains. It was like taking a time machine to the Middle Ages — seeing people work in these bucolic landscapes with tools that their great-great-grandfathers worked with. It was an incredible harmony between people and nature. For another story, I had to change seven airplanes to get to a tiny town in Alaska called Point Hope where there’s an isolated community of around 800 Iñupiat, and each airplane got smaller and smaller… It was right on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. So there have been some really beautiful, spectacular places.
On your years-long search to find the butterfly named after your father
Right now I’m shooting my first documentary feature, with a grant from the National Geographic Society. It’s an epic, kind of life-defining, project that follows a butterfly that’s named after my father. He was an entomologist butterfly specialist, and he collected up to 100,000 butterflies in his lifetime. There’s this very rare endemic butterfly called satyrus effendi that’s named after him, and it’s only found on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan — two countries that have been in the grips of war for all these years. So I’m in pursuit of this butterfly and trying to tell the story of my father, and this conflict, through this journey. It flies high in the mountains, only once a year, for two weeks, and only for a few hours a day. It’s my third year trying to find it, and now I’m teaming up with some scientists who have spent five years trying to find it!
On a window or aisle seat while flying
I mean, my preference is to be horizontal when I’m flying of course, but I don’t get three empty seats or business class very often. So I like the aisle because I like to get up and out.
‘People always muse about Istanbul being on the crossroads of continents; they say it has Europe and Asia and they're distinctly different, but I think it's a lot more complex.’
On finding inspiration around Istanbul
It’s an incredibly architecturally, historically and culturally layered city. I love the fact that here, you can go out on the streets and you can see a street vendor, with his rickety wooden cart, selling a drink called boza that's 9000 years old. In Istanbul, you always see these moments that are like little time capsules. I love the fact that you can be here and feel the comfort and intimacy of a village in a huge city like this. People always muse about Istanbul being on the crossroads of continents; they say it has Europe and Asia and they're distinctly different, but I think it's a lot more complex. It's much more intermeshed and intricate, and I find that very stimulating.
On how you’d show a friend around Istanbul for the day
I think in the morning we’ll start with the hammam ritual because it’s wonderful. My favorite hammam in the city is Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı. It's a glorious, glorious place. After that, we'll have a late Turkish breakfast somewhere. One of my favorite places is called Privato Cafe, near Galata Tower. Then we'll walk down to Karaköy and cross the bridge and go for a long walk towards Fatih and Balat. We'll see the mosques and the old neighborhoods. We’ll watch the seagulls fighting the cats over the fish carcasses at the fish market. It’s mostly walking and exploring the city, I don’t like having these tick boxes, I prefer to just wander.
On the best food in the city
For lunch, go to Çiya Sofrası. It's not really off the beaten track because there was a Chef's Table episode about it, but it's an incredible, affordable restaurant and the chef combines all these village recipes from eastern Anatolia. And it's right in the middle of a wonderful bazaar on the Asian side. Dinner would be at one of my favorite places –- Karaköy Lokantası — a very traditional Turkish taverna. The concept is sort of mezes — a lot of them are fish. It has a very consistent quality — like you never go there and have a bad experience. The atmosphere is wonderful too. So maybe have lunch in Asia and dinner in Europe.
'My favorite sound is the song of the ferries that criss-cross the Bosphorus… there’s something really soothing about that sound.’
On cultural spots to visit
There’s an Ottoman-era imperial hunting lodge called Abdülmecid Efendi Köşkü — a köşkü is an old wooden home — and inside it there are often contemporary art collections on display. On the European side is this place called The Museum of Innocence. It's a physical personification of a novel of the same name, The Museum of Innocence, written by Orhan Pamuk, who is a Nobel Prize laureate and famous Turkish writer. You walk into the space and it's like walking inside the novel.
On a song that best represents Istanbul
The whole city sings! But I think my most favorite sound is the song of the ferries that criss-cross the Bosphorus. These long, lamenting horns above the water — there's something really soothing about that sound. It's almost like an invitation to restart, and to start your day.
On describing Istanbul in one word
It's layers of history from Byzantine heritage to Ottoman, but it’s also the various social strata and ethnic diversity within the city. It can be a bastion of traditional culture, and then you see these snippets of modern life bursting through, and there's some kind of tolerance and harmony between all these different elements. They’re not always at war.