The woman behind the lens - Rena Effendi


Rena Effendi is an award-winning social documentary photographer and photojournalist, whose talent and passion has taken her to some of the world’s most remote rural communities. In her most recent editorial commission for National Geographic, Rena visited coffee farming regions in Zimbabwe and Caquetá, Colombia, to discover how Nespresso’s coffee-sourcing programme – the Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality Program - is helping fragile communities to recover, and how the role of women in these developing economies is changing.

We caught up with Rena to talk about her career, the people she has photographed, and the shifting perceptions of women that she has observed. Speaking both personally, and looking through the lens of her camera.


What inspired you to become a photographer?

I had been studying painting for some time, but felt increasingly restless - sitting in the studio and struggling over a canvas all day. A friend of mine gave me a very bulky, old generation Nikon camera. I picked it up, put a roll of film in and soon realised I just couldn’t put it down! Everything felt right. It was magical. I loved the excitement of framing a shot and seeing what would come out of it. Going into the dark room, processing the film and then printing it on paper. And I felt like I needed to be on the street, interacting with people, learning their stories. It was like painting, except with real life and ‘real’ pictures. In fact, in my photography I am very much influenced by the Flemish Old Masters – their use of light, and the styling of their portraits. You could say I’m just a lazy painter!


Your profession has taken you to some of the world’s most remote communities. Have you experienced any challenges as a female photographer on such assignments?

The short answer is that, in my work, I am a photographer first and a woman second. In my experience, being a photographer, ‘armed’ with a camera, creates a kind of neutral space in which I can photograph men of authority, ask them to pose for me and they respectfully do what I ask. It is a peculiar dynamic and I have seen many men bend their rules because of my job.

For example, I visited a remote, mountain community in Azerbaijan when I was 8 months pregnant. It was a very traditional, patriarchal village. But while photographing daily life there, it dawned on me that nobody noticed my pregnancy, asked how many months along I was, or offered me a chair. Then I realised that, because I carried a camera, to them I was a person who had come with a purpose, and had the power to tell their story. The gender dynamics really changed. It was almost as though I couldn’t be both a woman and a photographer. The usual attitudes and customs towards women there did not apply to me. I was a kind of ‘alien’!


What has surprised you the most during the visits you have been on with Nespresso?

I had never even seen a coffee tree before and was very surprised to learn that coffee is in fact a cherry! I was also shocked by how much manual labour goes into the production process, and what an artisanal craft it is. You get a branch covered in cherries, from green to red, which all ripen at different times. You have to pick only the best red cherries, and a machine cannot do this. Then comes the whole drying and the pulping process, before the beans finally make it to a table where coffee specialists examine the sizes and shapes to pick the very best ones. There is human labour involved at every single stage.


What does a ‘typical’ day on assignment look like?

That depends which day! In Zimbabwe on the Nespresso project, for example, I would get up quite early because we only had sunlight until about 4.30pm. There were days when I went to see and talk to the farmers, and others when I would drive around, looking out of the window until I saw something interesting and say ‘Stop! let’s shoot this!’.

One Sunday, for example, we saw a group of people dressed in beautiful, flowing white robes, walking into the forest. So we got out of the car and followed. I realised it was a church congregation going to worship in the open air. There were men and women, sitting in a small clearing in the forest, praying and talking. Then I saw another group of people, also dressed in white, standing in the river and washing. Another natural sight of worship. It was beautiful and poignant so I took pictures there and then.

When spending longer with a subject, it’s important not to interfere with anything, but just to be a ‘fly on the wall’. In Zimbabwe I spent a day with a young coffee farmer, Jesca, just observing her carrying on with her day, working in the field, doing homework with her children and cooking. On other days, I try to observe and capture the everyday comings and goings of the local people – be it children playing football, or people coming to sell at a market.

Unfortunately, I rarely get to be in places for very long. There is usually a set schedule, but I always try to leave some room for spontaneity because you end up discovering fascinating things. You have to leave some room for the unexpected.


On your latest commission with Nespresso, you have spent time with communities that have been ravaged by crisis or conflict and have had to rebuild their coffee industry from scratch. What impressions have these trips made on you?

The Nespresso project recently took me to Zimbabwe - Honde valley - for the first time. There I observed the resurgence of the local coffee industry. On arriving, I was struck by how many banana plantations there were. The local team explained that the coffee industry had been decimated, forcing famers back to cash crops. Many of the farmers told me that, whilst coffee is a longer-term investment, it yields higher returns than bananas. Some of them are already seeing the results, are happy, and are making plans for the future.

It’s clearly only the beginning of a long-term revival programme, but people’s optimism was palpable. I have very clear recollections of one of the team, Midway from TechnoServe (an NGO partner of Nespresso) on the road, spreading the gospel about coffee and infecting people with his excitement, telling them about local farmers who were planting trees and participating in the (Nespresso) AAA program. The word will definitely spread because it’s a small community. And early evangelists are already leading the way. Zachariah, for example, is a religious and cultural figure with a large following. He’s already

planted 3,000 new coffee trees and I am sure they will be replanted onto many other farms in the future.


That’s an incredible turnaround in a country where, up until recently, the coffee industry had been in real danger of disappearing. Were people nervous?

Quite the opposite. I picked up on a real sense of positivity - particularly from the plans they were making for the future. The resilience of the human spirit never ceases to amaze me. I heard stories of coffee trees literally in flames, because the market collapsed and people couldn’t sell the product, so they replaced coffee trees with easier crops. I find it remarkable that, in spite of these difficulties, they have been able to find the courage to go back and start again. It’s an inherent feature of humanity which I have seen all over the world.


And did you see changes underway in the wider community?

Absolutely. On my first day in Zimbabwe, I met an elderly couple of coffee farmers. Their son, Afadwe, was an agronomist working with Nespresso. Despite their age, both husband and wife were still working in the field together, pruning the trees. When I asked them about the situation – how is it now, how was it before - they were clearly excited. They said they will be getting a return very soon, and plan to reinvest their earnings in their children’s education before anything else. I was incredibly impressed by that. They showed me around the local community school, which a group of coffee farmers had helped build and improve. So you can already see some ripple effects on the lives of the community.


Can you tell us about the female farmers and agronomists you met, and why you feel it’s important to a shine a light on them and their stories?

In Zimbabwe I met a young coffee farmer called Jesca, who was about 30 years old. Her passion was infectious. ‘I want to make the best coffee beans in the country,’ she told me. She and her husband have a large farm with various crops, but I could see she was the driving force behind the coffee cultivation. And I could tell that she was really empowered by this work.

It’s very easy for women in rural areas to fall into the traditional role of caretaker of children and the household, with the husband out working in the field, but Jesca was very active. Not only alongside her husband, but active in her own right. And she took other women of the community along with her, to the AAA program training. Interestingly, the women were the most active participants, eager to learn and asking questions.

Jesca told me that in the beginning she got quite a lot of backlash from the community, seen as a woman who had overstepped her boundaries by taking an important role in the family business. But things are changing. She said that now people can see her success, they are inspired to be braver and follow in her footsteps. That is why I think highlighting stories like Jesca’s is very important, to empower others.


And do you feel it is important to tell these stories outside of Zimbabwe too?

It’s important in order to be able to break the stereotype - of the women by the oven, cooking and cleaning for their family or village. It shows that women in rural areas, in spite of having less opportunity for emancipation, are joining the workforce and making decisions, not just with their husbands but on their own.

I think this an important message for everyone out there. I have seen so many women in tiny, remote communities who are not as empowered as Jesca is. It is a tough existence. I remember very distinctly one occasion when visiting a tiny, remote village in Zambia. Access to water was poor and sanitation very bad. I asked them what was the single hardest thing to deal with, and they said ‘boredom’. It shocked me that boredom was the number one problem when their village had so many challenges. I think that, in this sense, work empowers women, and that is a powerful message. A woman like Jesca, who – on top of taking care of the children – is striving to make the best coffee beans and taking an important role in her family, is very inspiring.


You are one of the few people who have been able to travel to the remote parts of Caquetá that were previously hit by conflict and quite cut off from the outside world. Can you tell us what you saw there and how things are changing?

Similar to Zimbabwe, I saw the coffee industry at a critical stage of revival. Again, the people are hopeful. In Caquetá we met two farmers – Don Edgar and Don Fernando – and their families. They are optimistic that more coffee farmers will return. The region has a troubled past – blighted by the conflict. Their wives were with them and they participated in every aspect of the coffee cultivation - from harvest to processing and drying. Even though their voices weren’t heard so much, I could tell that their role in the business is prominent. They work side by side with their husbands. I can imagine just on a day-to-day level they are less afraid. It is not as dangerous maybe as it used to be, and they feel more secure about their children’s future in the region, which is very important as well.

Has your perception of women in society changed throughout your career?

Dramatically! When I grew up I had a completely different image of a heroine or female icon. As a child, I was used to films and folk tales about beautiful princesses and damsels in distress. So I was conditioned to admire these beautiful, fragile women, who needed to be saved. But the reality has always been different. Indeed my own mother was very different. She was the chief breadwinner as my father’s salary was not enough to support us. Similarly, through my work I have met a huge number of remarkable, amazing women who managed to save themselves, overcoming trauma and hardship with their spirits remaining strong. I have learned to admire a different woman. A strong woman, who despite adversity will stand defiantly against social prejudices, discrimination and violence.

Things have changed so much, it’s laughable. My poor 9-year-old daughter can’t even watch a film without me providing a running commentary on the sexist content. Take one of the early Indiana Jones movies we watched the other day - I was so infuriated by the portrayal of a hapless blonde woman, needing to be saved by a man every 15 minutes! ‘That’s not a good image of a woman’ I kept telling her. But it was our popular culture, from childhood. Since then we have had to learn on our own through the experiences of real or ‘ordinary’ women, not celebrities or public figures. This is another reason why I think putting stories like Jesca’s in the spotlight is extremely important. She is one of those ordinary women, making a huge change in their lives and their communities.


There has been much debate about female empowerment in remote communities and the need for increased economic development. Is this something you have seen personally - the opportunity that comes for women by relieving boredom and gaining professional skills?

Very much so. Today we see so many young people (women and men) leaving rural areas because they are not empowered, and don’t see a future there. They leave for the cities to get a job, meaning that rural communities are shrinking. I feel strongly that providing young people with economic opportunities in these rural communities will encourage them to remain. And safeguard the future of the crops they produce. Because if there are no farmers left to farm coffee, there will be no coffee.

When I was with Nespresso in Aguadas (Colombia) I met a female coffee farmer, Alba Maria. She told me that coffee is in her heart. It is her life’s work. Because she is growing better quality coffee, AAA quality, she is able to benefit from the programme and sell it at a premium price. She has 2,000 trees which she is hoping will continue to grow and her farm will expand. Her biggest dream is that her daughter will take over the business. Thanks to the AAA program, she has been able to show her daughter that there is future in coffee, that she is secure, and it will continue for several generations. Hopefully with that her daughter will be encouraged to stay. And it will carry on into the future.


You have travelled the world and visited so many rural communities, has #metoo trickled down to the women in these rural communities. Is life changing for them as well?

It’s hard to gauge. In the very rural communities, such as in Honde Valley in Zimbabwe, none of the female farmers I met had access to social media. It has affected others though. I visited a remote Native American reservation in the United States of America with almost epidemic proportions of sexual abuse. I could see that, in spite of the culture of stigma and shame around the subject, women (and men) there felt more empowered to speak out because of the #metoo campaign.

In short, I think it’s a matter of time, and it depends on access to media. But things are changing quickly. Recently, I went back to the same village in Azerbaijan where nobody saw my pregnancy 10 years ago. Young people there have Instagram accounts already! Attitudes are changing too. I looked up the family I had previously visited to photograph their children. One of the daughters is 21 already. She is now an IT teacher at the local school, one of the first women in the village to get a job and stay in the village. So I hope that it will finally trickle down. How far down I’m not sure, but perceptions are definitely shifting.


What advice would you give someone considering a career in photography?

Number one: be patient. It is an extremely competitive industry. It is not like it used to be, when you could disappear for months on a magazine assignment. With editorial budgets shrinking, making a living from photography is becoming very hard for everyone, even experienced professional photographers.

Number two: stay true to your passions, and invest in personal projects. That’s how I started. I self-funded projects I really cared about. Eventually they were published, people liked them and started calling me for assignments. If you invest emotionally, as well as financially at the beginning of your career, it should pay off at some point!


What is in store for you over the next few months?

I still have two more countries to cover for Nespresso – Guatemala and Ethiopia. One of the things I like most about this project is that every single one of the countries I have visited are places I haven’t been before. I love going to new places.

I am also going to Davos to speak about the ‘Female Icon’ at the Economic Forum, which I am very excited about. We’ll see what happens after that!