WPP winner Rena Effendi on National Geographic, responsible storytelling and Transylvanian agrarian culture

“I love working for the National Geographic Magazine as it is the only publication that gives you the kind of resources and extensive time to do the story the right way,” says Rena Effendi, who won two World Press Photo awards this year – second prize in the Observed Portraits Singles category for a shot of Dasan Cavanaugh on the Spirit Lake Reservation; and third prize in the Observed Portraits Features category for Transylvania: Built on Grass, which was shot for National Geographic Magazine.

“Moreover, you are fully involved in the editing and layout process,” she continues. “You get to see and develop your work all the way through to the end – from the field where you’ve captured the images to the pages of the magazine. It’s a real collaborative process and you get to work with a very passionate and dedicated editorial team on the magazine, producing together the best possible outcome. Most of the work I do is documentary in its nature and National Geographic supports in-depth documentary photography which then gets published in a way that it deserves.”

It’s an approach that was perhaps particularly important for this story, which shows traditional farming and hay-making – a way of life which, for Effendi, is worth preserving, but which has fuelled a media panic about waves of impoverished Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants in some sections of the UK press. “I certainly would not want my images of Transylvania to feed into the dynamic of any negative story about Romanians coming to the UK and stealing jobs, or where the meaning of my pictures is being manipulated to illustrate a theme that is not present in my own work,” she says. “The main purpose for me in Transylvania was to document a way of life that is disappearing, a medieval agrarian culture that is on the brink of extinction, partially due to the economic policies of the EU. I wanted to show life of small-scale subsistence farmers who have managed to preserve their traditions and practices in spite of all the effects of globalisation.”

“I very much care about how my images are being used editorially,” she continues. “There has to be a match between my image and the written word, rather than manipulation of ideas. We often say that an image speaks a thousand words, but it’s a real danger when just a few words can cast a different light on our images.”

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is the editor of BJP, returning for a second stint on staff in 2023 - after 15 years on the team until 2019. As a freelancer, she has written for The Guardian, FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, Aperture, FOAM, Aesthetica and Apollo. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy