“Be patient, self-aware and have humility”

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Rena Effendi has spent years steadily building a successful career in photography. A social documentary photographer, her work is driven by human-interest stories and has taken her to Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey, among other places. It is all about telling stories that deserve to be told, she explains.

“I try to focus on the world’s least represented issues and communities,” says Effendi, whose work can be seen at this year’s Photo London. “For example, with today’s #metoo movement having finally galvanised women around the world to come forward, very little is being reported on the cycle of sexual abuse in Native American reservations; people are silenced by stigma and the trauma festers. […] I seek out stories of people whose voices are not heard enough.”

Effendi is one of five female artists – alongside Catherine Leutenegger, Letizia Battaglia, Tanya Habjouqa and Newsha Tavakolian – whose work is being brought to Photo London by Rome-based ILEX Gallery. This will be the gallery’s third time at the fair, says founder and director Deanna Richardson, who was compelled to produce an “all-girl” line-up because she wanted to see more work by female artists on gallery walls.

© Newsha Tavakolian

This year, Richardson has been working with independent curator Daniel Blochwitz to produce an exhibition that addresses “the big questions of identity and resistance”. Among the work being presented is an image from Listen, Tavakolian’s series of mock CD covers featuring the imaginary songs that female singers in Iran would sing if they were allowed to sing solo, perform in public or record CDs. Also on show is Habjouqa’s evocative series on Syrian women in Jordan, and Battaglia’s photographs of Palermo in the 1980s.

“We’re showing a lot of portraits,” says Richardson, who founded ILEX Gallery, a space that fuses the distinction between photojournalistic and artistic photography, in 2008. “Most of our artists have a story behind what they’re doing. They work on themes over many years. For example, there is Rena and the work she’s been doing in Chernobyl and Azerbaijan, which are long-term stories.”

© Tanya Habjouqa

Effendi will be showing images from her series about the post-nuclear landscape in Chernobyl – Still Life in the Zone – alongside an image of a discarded wedding dress on a landfill site in Baku, Azerbaijan. The photograph is taken from the series Liquid Land which examines environmental degradation in the city in which she grew up.

The process of selecting which of Effendi’s images to show at the fair was collaborative. “We talked about the idea for an overall exhibition and I responded with some suggestions,” says the photographer. “In the end we came to a joint conclusion to show those works. In a group show it is important that works by individual artists relate to each other.”

This careful, considered selection process extends to ILEX’s roster of artists. Looking for work she finds intriguing and moving, Richardson likens a gallery to a garden that needs nurturing. “You want every artist to have his or her time to bloom,” she says. “It’s important to work with a gallery because it gives you a presence from an institution – there is someone in your corner who can help you build your career, give advice on how to represent your work and advise what to put out into the art market.”

Sometimes Richardson approaches artists she would like to work with and sometimes they approach her. Luck and clicking with the gallery come into play, she says. “Every gallery has its own vision. [The work and artist] has to fit otherwise it’s impossible for a gallerist to do a good job of representing them. There isn’t a measure of what I like or don’t like, it’s just a feeling of connecting with the work and the artist.”

© Tanya Habjouqa

For Effendi, working with a gallery to put on exhibitions and show work at fairs is not just about selling; it is a chance to tell stories in creative new ways. “I see collaboration with a gallery as a platform for storytelling. It is a space that is not limited to photography or bound by a specific design, place or rigid layout,” she says. “For me, an exhibition is a home for a story I can tell in many different ways. […] Exhibiting my photographs in a gallery format is a way to push the boundaries of my creativity and a chance to collaborate with other creative individuals. During this collaborative process I gain different insight into my work, which helps me grow as an artist.”

When it comes to offering advice to photographers looking for gallery representation, Effendi is realistic about what is involved. “Be patient, self-aware and have humility,” she says. “Listen to critique, but do not be discouraged. If the work is genuine and extraordinary it will eventually get noticed. Focus on building a compelling portfolio and then think of ways to share it with the world. This requires an inordinate amount of patience and one must invest time and resources – both emotional and financial. Taking pictures alone is rarely enough.”

© Letizia Battaglia
© Rena Effendi

ILEX Gallery will be at Photo London from 17 – 20 May 2018, and they can be found at Stand F3 on the 1st floor.

Now in its fourth year, Photo London is an international photography fair showcasing work by artists from more than 100 of the world’s leading galleries. Taking place at London’s Somerset House, Photo London 2018 brings together the world’s finest photographers, curators, exhibitors, and dealers to celebrate photography. To find out more about Photo London and book tickets, click here

This feature was made possible with the support of Duran Mashaal Gallery. Please click here for more information on sponsored content funding at British Journal of Photography.