You photograph what is, and when you look at photograph you see what was. There’s a dissonance right there, which can become a symbol for the abyss of time just as much as a reminder of what we humans have done to turn what was into what is. Reading the press release for Rena Effendi’s Liquid Land I failed to realize that the book would be centered on precisely that. In fact, I only figured it out going through the book.
Of course, that dissonance lies at the very core of photography, but Liquid Land works off it in a particularly focused way. The book starts off with a section in which the Refendi talks about her late father, an entomologist studying butterflies. The photographer acknowledges the bitter irony of the scientist killing “over thirty thousand” of butterflies, many of which are now extinct (which, inevitably, reminds one of the Vietnam War dictum “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” reported by Peter Arnett).
But then again, a lone scientist’s contribution to the extinction of butterflies in Azerbaijan is rather minor compared with the efforts put in by the oil industry, which has turned parts of the country into a dystopian wasteland. The second, larger, part of the book contains photographs speaking forcefully of that destruction, and of people living in it. The land might look like a wasteland to the observer, but at the same time it’s people’s home.
Photographs provide the arc that connect these different strands - the personal history, the butterflies and their extinction, the ravaged land. Liquid Land weaves the different strands into one piece, an sorrowful elegy in which the personal loss is connected to the larger one, the loss of a beautiful land. We - meaning all of us - have been engaged in this kind of endeavour for a long time now, and there is no end in sight.
For example, with fracking now having become a successful way to extract oil from the soil, there will be new ravages coming to lands that have not seen them, yet. More water will be polluted. More people will get sick from diseases that can be linked to the industry. And more money will be spent on politicians so that the evidence will be suppressed, so that money can and will be made without environmentalists (“tree huggers”) interfering with the what is called “the bottom line.”
Liquid Land portrays a specific part of the world. But in reality it talks of almost every nook and cranny of this planet - the land being destroyed so that we can drive cars, say, or have things made of plastic, and all that for as little money as possible. Are we really sure we’re gaining as much as we’re losing?
Liquid Land; photographs and writing by Rena Effendi; 112 pages; Schilt Publishing; 2013